Toxic Social Media Accounts Don’t Deserve Your Follow. 8 Ways To Spot Them

Influencers are the lifeblood of social media platforms like 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 radicalising.

They can be more toxic than we might realise, especially at the start. “The chronic consumption of normalised toxic content over years is also dehumanising and can contribute to susceptibility towards extremism and violence,” says 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 specialises 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 explains. “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,” says 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.”

– Therapist Amy Reznik

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 says. “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 explains.

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 says. “There are no guardrails.”

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