Many of us have sought the advice of parents when confronted with pressing mental health challenges, whether they be past, current or future. Now, because of our expanded technological capacities, younger generations, when looking for advice on how to deal with mental health issues, often turn to the social media platforms of people closer to their age.
On YouTube, there exists a popular trend whereby young social media 'influencers' create sit-down-and-talk Q&A styled videos that look to answer the concerns of their audiences. Unfortunately, in the vast majority of cases, the advice given is for the best part naïve and, at worst, destructive. Failing to ‘fix’ profound mental health issues, this advice is regularly conveyed in an overly emotional and unprofessional manner to garner views. The ‘solutions’ are simplified to the 'nth' degree while the generality of the advice does not address the individual complexity of different peoples’ cases.
It’s always troubled me: why on earth would someone seek advice on such personal circumstances in such an impersonal way? And more to the point, why would someone attach value and trust to this advice from individuals with whom they do not have personal relationships, whose motivations are unclear and whose lived experience is often limited? When you consider the extent of the influence of some social media characters, it is easy to see just how detrimental it could be when grossly
"...influencing even a fraction of their audience means thousands of young people may be taking on board useless or, worse, harmful advice."
unqualified teenagers provide their audiences with mental health advice. Whilst not all of an influencer’s audience will listen to their advice, some follower counts number in the millions - influencing even a fraction of their audience means thousands of young people may be taking on board useless or, worse, harmful advice.
In Annette Baier’s journal article “Trust and Antitrust”, trust is described as a “moral prejudice”, whereby exploitation and conspiracy, as much as justice and fellowship, can thrive best in an atmosphere of trust. An individual’s 'moral prejudice' determines whether the trust relationship is moral or immoral. Immoral trust relationships must be broken and prevented whenever possible if we are to thrive as individuals. So, how can we apply the insights of this 1986 paper to the modern context of the social media age? What can be said about the 'moral prejudices' of your favourite young 'influencer'?
"...outlandish titles and polarising talking points are tools to draw more views, channel traffic and money."
It is important to establish that even with good "moral prejudices", immoral trust relationships can still exist and be brought about unintentionally. For instance, let us assume that an 'influencer' does have the best interests of their followers at heart and looks to give advice accordingly. It is harmful when the advice is not understood to be naïve and subsequently, if value is attached to the advice, an immoral trust relationship has been created as it hinders the audiences’ ability to thrive.
Conversely, what of the case of 'exploitation and conspiracy'? It is worrying when you realise that the incentives of the 'influencer' and their followers are not aligned. The 'influencer' is motivated by views, increased popularity and the money that comes with it, so we should not assume that they would have the best interests of their followers at heart in these Q&A styled videos. Here, the trust relationship between the 'influencer' and their followers immediately breaks down and becomes immoral before any advice is even given. Videos titled in all caps, along the lines of “TOXIC RELATIONSHIP ADVICE” and “MASTERING SELF-LOVE AND LEAVING SELF-CRITICISM” usually show that the 'influencer' values more the growth of their channel than the well-being of their audience, as outlandish titles and polarising talking points are tools to draw more views, channel traffic and money.
So, what should we do moving forward? You cannot stop young 'influencers' from speaking about their life experiences: it is their right to do so. But they should be understood as just that, their specific experiences. There are certainly foreseeable positives to this; it is comforting to know people have gone through similar experiences to your own. A movement from advice styled to experience-based videos is a step in the right direction.
Building on this, 'influencers' could work proactively with mental health helplines or organisations to increase information and access to professional mental health services. This would turn the tide in making immoral trust relationships less prevalent between 'influencers' and their audiences. It must be understood ultimately that 'influencers’ advice-giving is immoral, regardless of whether the relationship was formed through intentional or unintentional “moral prejudices”. 'Influencers' should continue to make income from their other content but should not be paid by YouTube to be therapists.
As a society, we must promote advice given in moral trust relationships; it is in those relationships that trust should ultimately lie. This could be with a family member, a best friend, a school councillor, helplines or a therapist. It is those individuals and groups that will have our best interests at heart and will support us emotionally. Vulnerability is hard to accept and even harder to share. Its healing should not be intrusted with young social media 'influencers'. Our generation is currently facing a mental health crisis, and social media is playing a huge role in it.