It’s hard enough to be a young woman in real life, so has social media helped or hurt?


Technology has undoubtedly advanced society, but it can be argued that not all of this innovation has been for the best. Some say the internet “sad girl” trope promotes female autonomy, while others feel it presents a danger in the broader conversation surrounding mental health. Think Sylvia Plath with a Twitter account.


The age of dissonance as seen in the internet sad girl movement filtered into the mainstream in 2011. It began as a grassroots trend emerging on Tumblr but when Instagram and Twitter took over so did the teenage “sad girl.” The stereotypical sad girl is someone tweets her sorrows and publicizes her vulnerabilities as a way of putting herself out there.


For those like myself who experienced adolescence in the beginning stages of social media, you might remember when just about every girl in high school had her own Tumblr. Tumblr became home base for reposting Lana Del Rey lyrics, or pictures of an unrealistically skinny model accompanied by some self loathing caption about one’s own body image. Most of all, a lot of girls found solace in their community to blog about personal topics like male rejection, sexual identity, domestic abuse or even self harm.


In 2014, Los Angeles based artist and red-haired vixen Audrey Wollen took to social media, coining her very own Sad Girl Theory.


In an interview with Nylon magazine, Wollen described her Sad Girl Theory as, “the proposal that the sadness of girls should be witnessed and re-historicized as an act of resistance, of political protest … girls’ sadness isn’t quiet, weak, shameful or dumb: it is active, autonomous, and articulate. It’s a way of fighting back.”


“Talking about sadness, depression, oppression and all of these issues brings them to the forefront, which can and will force the public to pay attention to them,” said Eric Weck, a Gender Studies and Journalism double major at Rutgers University.


Weck said he has several friends who identify themselves as a sad girl or the alternative reference, “depressed bitch.” Some of these women have been diagnosed with depression and have discovered the importance of finding a community of people with similar experiences in their treatment of the disorder, he says.


Wollen explained political protest as something that has historically been constructed in a masculine context as violent or external, citing, for example, street riots. In the age of the internet, sad girls are redefining protest as feminine, channeling their women activist predecessors by employing their internal anguish, or, in this case, sadness, to cultivate external resistance and political agency.


“People feel empowered by voicing their stories,” said Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Rutgers Community-Based Counselor Fanteema BarnesWatson. “Just being able to say ‘I feel depressed” or ‘I feel anxious’ makes them feel a little bit stronger even if people do not share the details of their stories.”


Sad girl theory isn’t just posting about being sad online, it means different things for everyone,” said self-identified sad girl Aria Irizarry.


For Irizarry, it meant reminding herself and others that she was a human with thoughts and pains and that was okay. When she was 15, she said she used Tumblr as her main source for both expression and solace.


Sad girls have been kept invisible for literally thousands of years,” said Wollen to Nylon. “The number-one cause of death globally for girls between 15 to 19 is suicide, and yet, we still tell every girl that her sadness is individual, her own failure, her own symptom and to keep quiet about it.”


There have been enough books, TV shows, films and even graphic novels to suggest the idea that the burdens of adolescence weigh heavy on young girls. For women like Irizarry, her internet persona allowed an escape.


Conceptually, the Sad Girl Theory makes sense. It is about getting in touch with oneself and connecting to a network of other struggling women. But, as with any social movement, there is a confrontational line where important issues stray away from their original goal and possibly manifest into a destructive shift that contradicts the movement’s origin.


Weck calls it a double edged sword: “on one hand it is great for building this community where people are suffering from the same thing as you. On the other hand, when you are being bombarded with stories of suffering, your entire world revolves around your mental disorder ”


When dealing with a mental health disorder like depression, it can end up being detrimental if you are constantly inundated with other people’s sadness. This effect can be likened to the same way political thought and fake news bubbles work for conservatives; when the entirety of your media and social circles all say the same thing, you’re probably going to become emboldened in your (fascist) opinions.


“I think that there needs to be a distinction between sadness and depression as a disorder,” Weck said. As sad girl culture becomes more and more present, “that line gets corroded, making it popular to be sad, and, sadly (no pun intended), that is what has been happening for a while now.”


Wollen said that Instagram works as a platform because of the way it gives women the ability to control and construct their identity. Instagram, in its purest sense, is a photo-based platform, which gets points for self-expression and self-identity, but it loses this credibility of empowerment in its detriment to young adults.


According to a report by the UK’s Royal Society for Public Health called #StatusofMind, social media platforms Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram were associated with increases in anxiety and depression. Instagram, in particular, was rated the most detrimental to health and wellbeing in a survey of 1,500 young adults.


Issues associated with social media in conjunction with young people’s mental health are, namely: loneliness, fear of missing out (FOMO), community building, real world relationships, depression, anxiety, sleep and more. When we are forced to look at the world through a frame that has been filtered and skewed, we are stripped of the autonomy to create our own independent view on the world.


“You can no longer have a niche community if it becomes mainstream,” Weck said. All that power goes away when the community breaks down, because the people who have forced their way into it most likely don’t understand and will thus abuse it.


So, then, what constitutes a sad girl from a poser? While it is impossible to truly define the ins-and-outs of the sad girl, the trend of sad girl-onlookers on Tumblr, Twitter and now Instagram self-diagnosing themselves with depression has likely only risen throughout the recent years. Many of these young women have even used the movement to gain internet clout in the form of followers and viral memes, arguably spoiling the community in its entirety.  


“Being a part of it,” and considering the large number of manipulators of the movement, Weck said, “I think there exists a huge amount of people that are being educated in its wake, which is why we might be post-sad girl now … but at least we got the conversation going. However, unfortunately, it is still on us to clarify the difference between sadness and a disease.”


There exists a slippery slope in the dangers of hyperadversited sadness. Wollen looks at the movement as a means of a reclaiming. It aims to show women that their sentiments of sadness are not to be ignored, but rather experienced loudly. The experience of sadness is no longer solitary the way it once was. Whether this is empowering or dangerous, is now up to us to decide.

By: Brielle Diskin