Instagram’s recent decision to hide the number of “likes” on each post received mixed feedback. Many lauded the company for taking action to better protect the mental health of individual users by attempting to ensure that use of the photo platform was more engagement-centric, while others – predominantly so-called “influencers” – mourned a potential loss of income and metric through which their traffic could be displayed.
While the legal profession in Australia has been aware of the prevalence, causes and effects of mental health issues for at least 15 years, we remain woefully ignorant of the cumulative impact of various idiosyncratic factors.
One of these is the impact of interactions on our social media posts. I, for one, think Instagram’s decision to hide likes is a positive step for our own professional community, for it reduces (even if only incrementally) the ways that lawyers and law students can compete, quantify their self-worth, or gauge their image or perceptions of it.
Why do I think this? Because those in law are already too concerned with how they appear to others and social media only perpetuates that cycle.
The impact of likes and comments on mental health
A UK-based study, How filtered is your life?, conducted by Catena Media Group a few months ago, questioned over 2,000 social media users about their online habits, mental health factors, self-consciousness and tendencies to compare and contrast.
In a story for Lawyers Weekly’s sister title Wellness Daily, I wrote that the study found that 78 per cent of adult social media users compare themselves to friends and peers online, one in 10 respondents said they would never upload a picture of themselves without editing it first, and less than half (43 per cent) said they would feel fine about finding a “merely unfiltered photo” of themselves on social media which they couldn’t remove or delete.
Astonishingly, 11 per cent of adults use the airbrushing app FaceTune, “which not only retouches skin flaws but can also slim waists, smooth wrinkles and even alter body proportions”.
Responding to the findings, clinical psychologist Dr Kelly Price said that images are the most responsible medium for negative impacts upon one’s mental health on social media platforms such as the aforementioned.
“The use of photographs on social media creates an environment where individuals determine our social and personal worth. It’s argued that body or lifestyle comparisons with peers may, as a result, provide a standard toward which to strive,” she explained.
“Quantifiable feedback, such as ‘likes’ and comments on photos, is likely to focus this attention on physical appearance. Individuals’ awareness of this power means, to present the best versions of ourselves, we are more inclined to enhance or edit images.”
Lawyers’ concern about self-image
Reading through the aforementioned research gave me pause to reflect on a research paper I co-wrote last year with Professor Natalie Skead and Dr Shane Rogers for The University of Western Australia – Looking beyond the mirror: psychological distress, eating, weight and shape concerns and maladaptive eating habits in law students and lawyers – and, in particular, our findings around how those in law perceive themselves.
One in five lawyers surveyed for our research, or 20 per cent, reported that their eating habits were influenced by a desire to maintain a particular image within the workplace.
Prima facie, that may not sound too serious, but when lined up against our discovery that 18 per cent of lawyers have eating, weight and shape concerns to a level of clinical significance (i.e. being on the cusp of a diagnosable eating disorder), and almost half – 48 per cent – have eating, weight and shape concerns to a level of eating disturbance (i.e. the point at which it can have a cumulative impact upon holistic wellbeing), questions about lawyers’ self-image and perceived appearance become wholly relevant.
Unsurprisingly, those who reported having higher levels of eating, weight and shape concern also have correspondingly higher levels of psychological distress, anxiety, depression and suicide ideation.
You can discover more of our findings here.
What is the potential cumulative impact of these findings?
You might think that these two research projects are unrelated. I disagree.
The predisposition of lawyers and law students to competitiveness and perfectionism led them, in my opinion, to disclose worries about their appearance and how others perceive them in our UWA research. There is nothing to suggest that – in a world in which technology and social media are all-consuming – those in law do not also fall into the trap of seeking validation and appreciation from the online sphere.
We already do so in-person by adopting maladaptive eating patterns so as to appear a certain way in the office. We already do so by way of being competitive – both with ourselves and others. Throw in the fact that lawyers and law students have higher rates of psychological distress, anxiety and depression than most if not all other professional strands and, well, I think we’ve got a dangerous cocktail of circumstances on our hands.
To my knowledge, there is no existing data on the impacts of social media upon a specific professional strand like law. But I think all of us need to be conscious of the possibility that our use of platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat can have a deleterious effect upon our holistic wellness, particularly if – like me – you take more than a passing interest in the volume of likes and comments you get when you upload a photo of yourself.
Legal professionals (including myself) can be overwhelmingly consumed by a need for recognition and a sense of achievement. Is it any wonder that, when presented with an avenue through which our self-worth can literally and metaphorically be measured, we dive in head first?
Where to from here?
Looking out at the profession, the obvious step forward is to undertake research into the extent to which our idiosyncratic habits with social media influence our overall levels of health and wellbeing, with particular consideration given to the educational and professional contexts in which we operate. This should be conducted with haste.
On an individual level, however, we should all be more mindful that, given our well-established tendencies to compete and be number one at everything, our seemingly innocuous daily habits may be contributing to a cumulative downward spiral of our holistic wellness. Self-awareness and constant vigilance is, as always, paramount.
And, now, I’m going to physically restrain myself from seeing how many clicks and comments this story gets once it is published.
Jerome Doraisamy is a senior writer at Lawyers Weekly and Wellness Daily.
Jerome Doraisamy is a senior writer for Lawyers Weekly and Wellness Daily. He is also the author of The Wellness Doctrines book series, an admitted solicitor in NSW, an adjunct lecturer at The University of Western Australia and is a board director of Minds Count.