Is your visual diet damaging your mental health?

What we consume visually and what we double-tap on makes a difference. So let's keep things positive.

By 9am most mornings, I have already consumed more than 500 images. You may be shocked and appalled, or want to applaud my efforts, but it’s very easy.

Fifty images on Instagram digested before I’ve even got out of bed. News on: images of violence, celebrity or plastic floating in some ocean somewhere. Hop on the number 12 bus: scroll through another 100 images mindlessly. Gaze out of the window: billboards, ads on buses, shopfronts and murals fly by in a blur. Pick up a magazine on my way underground; check phone again.

By 9am, done. I told you it was easy. By 10.30am, I’ve already doubled that number.

We are force-fed thousands of images every day. Hyper-retouched, sexually gratuitous, snack-sized pictures are served up, quickly and fleetingly. They often leave us feeling hollow and inadequate. This diet is a product of our society; we are on the go, time-poor and hungry for information. But these are often empty calories; visual calories that we gorge on because they're there.

This is the context from which the Visual Diet project was born. When I started thinking about this issue last year, it was never about an industry movement but a personal one. As individuals, not only are we passive swallowers of imagery, we’re feeders too – and we are all responsible for what we put out into the world.

In her seminal book On Photography, published in 1977, Susan Sontag wrote: "Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted. Industrial societies turn their citizens into image-junkies; it is the most irresistible form of mental pollution."

Roll on four decades from Sontag’s insights and here we are: conditioned by blue light, vibrations and "likes". Craving cyber-appreciation like sugar.

How did we get to this point?

Due to an unfortunate combination of self-recognition (photos with faces attract 40% more "likes" than those without) and social reciprocity (in other words, #like4like), we "heart" even when we don’t really like.

Kim Kardashian in a bikini eating cake. Robot influencer Lil Miquela on the cover of a magazine (I mean, she’s not even real, for fuck’s sake). Pool-side selfies of a friend – the one who’s always on holiday.

Consuming too much of this content can lead to mental-health disorders such as depression, anxiety, narcissism or even Snapchat dysmorphia – a recent trend whereby people are getting plastic surgery to look like their filtered selfies.

Anti-social social media is just one aspect of this cultural phenomenon. We, as an industry of advertisers and image-makers, have an immense responsibility to protect and inspire the minds of our audiences.

We’ve created a problem by shaping influencers as pseudo-celebrities – blurring the lines between paid and real content. We need to slow down and consider the side effects of our uploads before hitting "share", whether we’re posting to 100,000 followers or 100.

The rise of selfie-awareness

The Visual Diet project is about inspiring people to be more conscious of their visual consumption by challenging the way we currently devour imagery and interact with social media.

We can’t always control what we see, short of going on a crash diet, Bird Box challenge-style (1/10; would not recommend). But, where we can, we should try to curate a space of visual nourishment and inspiration. If you are what you see, I only want to look at the good stuff. And this plays equally to creatives in agencies as it does to everyone else outside our bubble.

Despite my apparent negativity, I am genuinely hopeful. Hopeful that in five (OK, maybe six?) years’ time we will look at a selfie with the level of disdain we currently feel when watching someone drink through a plastic straw (you’re no friend of the sea turtle).

The wheels are in motion and, whether you believe it or not, we appear to be reaching an inflection point: self-awareness of screen time; Scroll Free September; petitions for obligatory warning labels on Photoshopped images (this is already law in France). And how many people have you heard lately proudly announcing that they’re "coming off" social media, as if they’re weaning themselves off heroin?

The creative industry should act as visual role models. Because if not us, who else?

Forging the path are non-conforming publications such as Beauty Papers saying "liberate creative beauty", or Pylot serving up all-analogue, unretouched content.

Campaigns including Rimmel London’s "#IWillNotBeDeleted" or "Viva la vulva" by Libresse are signs of progress, as is Jameela Jamil’s Instagram movement #IWeigh – a "revolution against shame and self-hatred over our looks, perpetuated by the media". Plus, pretty much everything from underwear brand Thinx.

We have seen honest photographic series such as Sophie Harris-Taylor’s Epidermis portraying real women’s skin, redefining "normal" and subverting how we view "imperfection"; and we have seen glitter transforming stretch marks into works of art (à la Sara Shakeel). Then we had a photo of an egg beating Kylie Jenner’s record for the most-liked post on Instagram. I could go on.

What now?

We all created this monster; we can defeat it. As an individual, question where your imagery is coming from and maintain a healthy level of scepticism. As creative people, feast your eyes on more of the good stuff. Keep following Kimye if you must, but look to seek out positive, feel-good imagery and art to balance your visual diet. These are our visual greens; noodle soup for the soul.

You know how people talk about brain food? Well, it’s not fish, it’s art. Don’t believe me? Check out the art-by-prescription trend growing in Canada this year. As German painter Gerhard Richter said: "Art is the highest form of hope." I truly believe in this.

As an industry, we need to lead the revolution. Feed the minds of your audiences. Be careful with whom you align online. And please post responsibly.

Every time we double-tap, we cast a vote for the kind of world we want to live in. So let’s be stingy with our love. It’s not really free. And, remember, "likes" do not equal worth. Let’s create a world where success is not measured by social metrics but by well-being and positive mental health.

How’s your visual diet?

Mimi Gray is head of visual content at M&C Saatchi

M&C Saatchi, in partnership with Rankin and MTArt Agency's Marine Tanguy, is hosting an exhibition and panel, Visual Diet, on 24 January to shine a light on how the way we visually consume affects our mental health. Vote now on the positive or negative feelings you associate with images at www.visualdiet.co.uk

Picture credit: Clémence Vazard, courtesy of MTArt Agency

Subscribe today for just $116 a year

Get the very latest news and insight from Campaign with unrestricted access to campaignlive.com , plus get exclusive discounts to Campaign events

Become a subscriber

GET YOUR CAMPAIGN DAILY FIX

The latest work, news, advice, comment and analysis, sent to you every day

register free