Influencers are gaining popularity across social media platforms such as Instagram, YouTube and TikTok. Sometimes, those creators are also experts, such as therapists or doctors, who have helpful insight on how to stay healthy, have a happy relationship and help you love your body. Pretty cool (and accessible), right?
But what happens when people pose as experts and/or share convincing misinformation? It’s easy to fall into those traps and believe sentiments that are untrue, or worse, harmful or radicalizing.
They can be more toxic than we might realize, especially at the start. “The chronic consumption of normalized toxic content over years is also dehumanizing and can contribute to susceptibility towards extremism and violence,” said Dana Coester, a professor at West Virginia University who studies technology, community media, journalism and more. “And finally, true threats are obscured or indistinguishable in their proximity to a backdrop where violence and harmful content is the norm.”
However, deciphering when something is harmful can be difficult when it’s not always upsetting or seems to be helpful in some small way. To help you curate a positive social media feed, experts shared some red flags to be aware of as you scroll.
They share suggestions in a shame-based or morality-based way
According to Brittany Morris, a licensed therapist at Thriveworks in Chesapeake, Virginia, who specializes in body image, self-esteem and the impact social media has on our mental health, “individuals preaching lifestyle changes which include restrictions and shame, and use morality-based language for things that have no morality, such as food,” are ones you don’t want to follow.
“Oftentimes, lifestyle changes create all-or-nothing thinking with little regard to each person’s individual needs and circumstances,” she explained. “Additionally, creating morality where there is none keeps people looped into things due to fear of failure or fear of doing something ‘bad.’”
This sign may be especially common in videos about weight, food, dieting and exercise. If one of them pops up, remember you’re not a “bad” person for eating dessert or skipping workouts. (And then unfollow the person who made you feel like you were.)
They promote an unrealistic lifestyle
You know the TikTok trend about “that girl”? The perfect one who wakes up early, drinks a smoothie and makes her bed daily without fail? Or maybe you’ve read tweets about replacing all TV-watching with podcasts and reading.
Yeah, that’s not super helpful (or realistic).
“For example, this can be someone that posts having a morning routine that includes journaling, meditation, a walk, a shower, making a home-cooked meal, etc., daily,” said Rebecca Leslie, a licensed psychologist with the online practice, Best Within You. “While this sounds wonderful, it is unrealistic for so many of us and can make us feel less-than.”
As Khloe Kardashian — who can be problematic in her own right (her show was “Revenge Body With Khloe Kardashian”) — said, “You don’t get an award for watching less TV.” Just saying.
“Remember that you are a demographic. Ask yourself what you are being sold.”
They give tips without the credentials to back it up
Lots of people share tips related to healthy eating, weight loss and fitness — but don’t believe their claims too quickly.
“You want the individual you are following [or] taking advice from to be trained in that area,” Morris said. “Individuals who practice with no credentials can cause harm by giving wrong information … It is important to remember that experiencing something personally does not make you an expert to others.”
There is nuance, though. Personal anecdotes can be valuable. People can be knowledgeable without having a degree, and not all people with credentials share accurate information. There’s no doubt about that. But listen to the research the poster shares, and do your own research.
They encourage secrecy and discussion of dark, upsetting or offensive topics
Some keywords to look out for: “private,” “offensive” and “report.”
“A lot of meme accounts aimed at adolescents and teens intentionally promote their edgy status with bios that include profiles requiring DMs for acceptance into private clubs (‘Private club, request to get in’), warnings (‘Not for the easily offended’) and direct challenges to not report offensive content to platforms or parents (‘I dare you to not report’ and even ‘Don’t tell your parents’),” Coester explained.
Dark content can be common for teens, but there’s a fine line between “normal” and dangerous. “It’s just that since online spaces are porous, it’s a short path to increasingly toxic adjacent content,” Coester said. “There are no guardrails.”
For example, realizing you’re not alone in your depression and letting yourself “feel the feels” can be helpful. But before you know it, you can easily go down a rabbit hole full of dangerous triggers with some of these videos.
“Any posts [or] profiles discussing self-harm or depression in an unproductive way, glorifying self-harm or portraying it as a solution are very harmful to people who are currently experiencing mental health challenges,” explained Sophie Janicke-Bowles, a positive media psychologist and assistant professor at Chapman University. “They can further exacerbate their symptoms and reinforce a downward spiral into more depression.”
They try to sell you something, such as a weight loss product
Many influencers make money from advertising products and partnering with companies. It’s not always a bad thing, just something to be cautious about.
“Remember that you are a demographic. Ask yourself what you are being sold,” said Amy Reznik, a therapist at Flourish Psychology in Brooklyn, New York.
Be especially careful with weight loss dieting products or ideas. You’ve probably seen this content a lot, given the diet culture industry is worth $72 billion.
“We know that fad diets and crash diets do not work,” Leslie said. “They tend to lead to weight cycling, which is harmful for your health. Be very cautious of any account that is promoting a quick fix or selling weight loss products.”
They engage in toxic positivity
“If an account uses phrases such as, ‘good vibes only’ or ‘don’t complain when you have it better than others,’ it’s a sign that the account promotes toxic positivity rather than authenticity and vulnerability,” said Fatema Jivanjee-Shakir, primary therapist at The Renfrew Center.
Remember, it’s okay to be sad, angry or another “socially unacceptable” emotion. Your feelings are valid, and surrounding yourself with people who believe the same is crucial.
“When we are surrounded by people and spaces (online or in person) that do not hold room for our true selves, it can lead to a sense of disconnection and isolation that negatively impacts our mental health,” Jivanjee-Shakir said.
They make you feel bad about yourself
Any account that makes you feel bad about yourself is one to unfollow. Maybe they’re toxic in general, or just for you. It doesn’t matter. If you finish their video feeling insecure, unhappy, depressed, anxious or something similar, it’s a no.
“While it may not be the intention of the account creator, following social media accounts that have a negative impact on you is going to affect your mood, your motivation and your overall happiness,” said Shannon Garcia, a psychotherapist in private practice at States of Wellness Counseling in Illinois and Wisconsin.
She shared some examples, such as influencers who never repeat outfits, people you no longer want in your sphere IRL (who will probably post about how great their life is, even without you in it), and friends who share endless news stories that cause you to “doomscroll,” or watch endless negative videos about the state of the world.
“Hit the unfollow button. Prioritize yourself,” Garcia said. “You are taking care of yourself and your wellbeing. You matter.”
They share perfect (edited) images
“A picture may be worth a thousand words, but are they true?” Reznik said. “Keep an eye out for accounts that rely heavily on filters. Images aren’t just people, but elaborate vacations, Norman Rockwell-level family photos and food delicacies off ‘The Great British Baking Show.’”
There is a difference between posting content you feel confident about and altering that content to the point it’s not real anymore. “We know that we do like to always put our best side forward on social media, [but] doing so in a highly inauthentic way, or even telling lies, can be harmful to others who see those posts,” said Janicke-Bowles.
Unfollowing accounts with these red flags is easier said than done — FOMO is real! — but your future self will be thankful for it. “The fear you’ll miss something important, like a scandal or a sale or someone else’s life events, is part of what keeps these platforms so powerful over people,” Reznik continued. “We are all so smart when it comes to our careers, our families and our friends; it’s time to bring boundaries and get smart about social media and ourselves.”