Apps and downs: Mental health and teenage girls’ interpretations of social media content

Ung kvinna använder sin mobiltelefon.

Teenage girls often follow influencers, and a common topic is mental health. But what norms about health and well-being are conveyed on social media? In this project, we examine influencers' posts on mental health issues and how the posts are interpreted by the teenage followers.

Many teenage girls follow influencers via various apps such as Instagram, TikTok and YouTube. A common topic is how to feel good or what to do when you feel low. To investigate the relationship between teenage girls, mental health and social media, we will study how influencers that teenage girls follow represent mental health, and how teenage girls relate to these representations.

Influencers as personal coaches

While influencers' posts about their own well-being promote conversations and discussions about mental health, they also enact specific norms related to wellbeing and healthy living. Many influencers combine stories about their mental state with descriptions of daily routines, to do-lists, life hacks, and advice on how to 'feel good'. Influencers become conversational agents and personal coaches for mental health management by presenting certain norms about causes of mental health problems and strategies that can counteract mental illness. At the same time, they also present their everyday life and a special lifestyle. This raises questions about what understanding of mental health that teenage girls read into these descriptions.

Covid-19 and social distancing

Examining how teenage girls relate to influencers' posts about mental health issues becomes particularly relevant during a pandemic, as young people in many cases are urged to study from a distance. Social distancing increases the importance of social media and the amount of time one can denote to it. Interaction with influencers can break the isolation and reduce the distances. At the same time, uncontrolled fake news has created an 'infodemic'. Teenage girls' increased interaction online, the importance of influencers they follow during a time of social distancing, and how girls interpret their posts related to mental health are an important issue in the project.

Ethnography for the internet

The project is inspired by the methodology ethnography for the Internet, which combines an analysis of online published material with offline interviews with social media users, i.e., in contexts where influencers' posts are consumed. By working in a parallel process to analyse posts on social media (online) and interviews with followers (offline), the social and cultural processes that create the Internet and embed the Internet in teenage girls' everyday lives can be highlighted.

The project is funded by Swedish Research Council for Health, Working Life and Welfare (2021-2024) and is conducted in collaboration with the school health service in Linköping municipality.