Is the new social media platform BeReal good for mental health? Not for mine.
It’s my fourth day of online activity on the ‘BeReal’ social media platform, and I am struggling between cancelling the account or letting it go frozen by inactivity. It’s not going well.
For those of you who (like me until last month) do not know what BeReal is, it’s a new-ish social media platform informally promoted as the anti-Instagram, thanks to its focus on close, real connections, and sharing of spontaneous moments through unstaged photos.
You can post a maximum of two pictures per day, a contemporary double-take of both the front and the selfie cameras. Basically: here is me doing what I am doing; and here is the room where I am doing what I am doing (and the people I am doing what I am doing it with, unless I am alone).
Photos are taken at unpredictable moments when requested by the app, and should be uploaded within a couple of minutes. You are allowed to upload late photos, but everybody knows you are late. And until you have uploaded your daily photos, you can’t see your friends’ photos.
And of course, there are no filters, and no possibility to re-take the photos. Life as it is. “A new and unique way to discover who your friends really are in their daily life”, as the BeReal website states.
In addition, you don’t know how many BeReal connections your BeReal friends have, so there is no competition for popularity. In fact, you cannot see celebrities unless you are friends with them.
So far so good.
BeReal, social media and mental health
We have extensively discussed the potentially deleterious effects of social media on mental health on Inspire the Mind, for example here, here and here. You can also listen to our recent At the Back of Your Mind podcast on this topic, here:
The themes underpinning these negative effects of social media are well known: continuous exposure to unrealistic (and unreal) standards of beauty, experience and success; fear of missing out on social events and fun opportunities; triggering by unfiltered material that glamourises self-harm behaviours or unhealthy eating habits; and direct bullying and shaming. A perfect recipe for disaster.
Will BeReal be different? The jury is out, at the moment.
Many online articles have discussed the pros and cons of this app in the context of mental health over the last few months. In fact, I was surprised by the sheer number of online articles that have already been published with ‘BeReal’ and ‘mental health’ in their titles or keywords.
An article published in Metro in April quoted mental health activist, John Junior, stressing the novelty of BeReal and the importance of using “no filters” so that people can be “real with themselves”.
However, the same article pinpoints that you can still decide to wait to post your photos until you are doing something interesting, so to stage the content anyway. Someone interviewed for this article also warns about the risk of seeing your friends meeting up and having fun without you “in real-time”.
Just one month later, The New Yorker weighed in. And the subtitle could not be more critical: “The difference between this app and the social-media giants”, the article says, “isn’t its relationship to truth but the size and scale of its deceptions.”
Not only does this article criticize the concept of ‘authenticity’, but also expresses concerns about the fact that you must engage — “be continually available for daily doses of self-exposure” — in order to see the content on the app. This makes BeReal even more prescriptive than other social media apps, where you can look without posting content.
Around the same time, an article in The Cut discussed the new app (Title: The Anti-Instagram App Promising to Make Us Feel Good) by asking whether we are actually able to use social media for “capturing and sharing the kind of authenticity we’re talking about”.
Perhaps being authentic on social media, whatever the platform, is just a myth?
While a piece on Goalcast (a life-improvement website) highlights the positive features of BeReal that could offer a healthier online environment, The Latch reminds us that the app is just “simply another excuse to look at your phone [and] promoting distraction”.
On the positive side, Ireland’s youth information charity, Spunout, launched a new mental health campaign encouraging young people to use BeReal to have conversations about mental health, by promoting the sharing of photos that are honest (“BeReal With How You Feel”) and that can have a positive impact.
However, a more recent article in The Daily Orange, an independent newspaper run by Syracuse University students, is more critical. Tellingly titled BeReal is just not that real, the article cites anecdotal evidence from students who save their daily BeReal posts for when they are doing something interesting, so again following into the same old trap. In the writer’s words, the students “outwardly resist the platform’s main goal”.
Ok, this is what other people think. But what is my experience?
Retrospectively, I should have gotten the hint that this was not for me based on who first talked to me about BeReal. Not a friend or a colleague in their 40s or 50s. Nope.
It was the 26-year-old daughter of my best friend during coffee in Milan.
I should have gotten the hint, but I didn’t.
So Act 2 starts during an (early) Christmas celebration with my research group, last week. When I bring up BeReal in conversation, they all respond excitedly. Yes, the app is cool. Yes, the app is different. Yes, the app is fun.
But no, we will not be following you.
And ok, I understand this, because “being connected on BeReal” would allow me to see their photos, which they reserve to only a small number of close friends. This is different from Instagram and Twitter, where people can follow you without being followed by you.
Yet I am somehow missing this second hint too.
I decide to download the app and install it, and take the first photo. Here it is:
Then I ask the app to look at my contacts and find potential connections. But, of the many hundreds of contacts in my phone book, I literally only have six people who are on BeReal: four are children of my friends (including the one who told me about BeReal), plus my niece and my nephew. All in their 20s.
I invited them all, and three children of my friends have accepted so far. My niece and nephew are ignoring me.
So, this is my main point. If you don’t have enough connections on BeReal, it can be upsetting.
Of course, in my case I should have seen it coming because of the age issue: if you are older than 30 (let alone 56, like me), let my story be a warning. For me, this is just a funny story.
But for others, it may not be so funny.
There might be people who are on BeReal, or would like to be, and might be struggling to connect — to find people who are willing to share their moments with them.
This could be because they live in isolated communities, have difficulties in social interaction, or, worse, are discriminated against.
You might not know how many BeReal connections your friends have, but you certainly know if you don’t have any BeReal connections, or if you have fewer than expected.
I also have another learning point.
I took three more pictures. The first was kind of spontaneous, but for the subsequent two pictures I was already ‘staging it’. Not changing what I was doing, but finding the right angle and smiling at the camera.
How long before I start moving to a better room, doing something funnier, or changing into nicer clothes? Three pictures and I am already hooked.
I need to stop this, right now.
I need to do what the article in the Latch suggests:
“If you really want to be real, just do fun things you enjoy, with or without people you love, and don’t post about it.”