I don’t know what I accidentally clicked on to end up on a subsection of Instagram obsessed with “gut health”. All I know is that, several months ago, my feed became dominated by posts telling me my diet was giving me depression and instructing me to put supplements in my water.
This corner of the internet has exploded in popularity in the last several years (#guthealth currently has 4.5 million associated posts on Instagram and 2.8 billion views on TikTok). It is mostly populated by young women delivering extremely detailed explanations of why gut health is the key to functioning at your highest level, and offering often conflicting advice on how to maintain a gut biome.
Though there is ample advice available from doctors and medical organisations on how to treat gut-related disorders – from more common ones, like irritable bowel syndrome, to more serious ones, like Crohn’s – gut health influencers go well beyond the standard medical guidance, suggesting gut health shouldn’t just the concern of those with diagnosed medical issues, but a lifestyle, with tips and tricks to be heeded by anyone. The consequences of not doing so – bloating, depression, general misery – are almost always claimed to be dire.
Despite being immediately sceptical of this trend, earnest videos and unsourced infographics continued to appear in my “suggested” posts, and I noticed that I had begun to absorb their warnings almost against my will. I hesitated when eating past certain times of day, or reaching for high “FODMAP” foods. Maybe my minor bloating was, in fact, the sign of something serious. Maybe I did have a gut problem. Maybe I should be massaging my intestines in a clockwise motion after every meal.
Even though there was no real evidence of a problem with my body, social media was constantly telling me to find one, rushing to supply me with an abundance of unsolicited advice on an issue I had never before had a single thought about.
On social media, we have reached a moment of extreme feedback. Wherever we turn – be it TikTok, Instagram, or even Twitter – we will find a stream of commentary overanalysing the minutiae of human experience. It ranges from multi-part threads on how we should conduct the most unimportant parts of our interpersonal relationships, to endless auditing of how we perform the dullest elements of our daily lives, such as how loudly we speak or how we put on socks. Sometimes the internet offers you a quick fix; sometimes it wants to sell you a solution in the form of a product; sometimes it insists the only answer is a serious medical diagnosis. The result is a cacophonous culture of information overload and hypersensitivity.
[See also: Inside the Twittering machine]
No mainstream platform is truly safe from this phenomenon, but it seems to thrive on TikTok. The app is awash with dissections of seemingly the most boring elements of life: videos telling people they’re washing their hair wrong (three million views), they don’t know how to sleep (thirty million) or how not to date (the hashtag #datingadvice has over ten billion views). One account contains more than two hundred videos (which often rack up millions of views each) explaining common “mistakes” made when posing for photos, and how to “correct” them.
Much of this sincere advice is clearly risible. But there are more series subsections of the trend: those discussing symptoms of mental and physical health problems such as gut health on TikTok and the parts of social media unpacking symptoms of ADHD. In the last few years ADHD diagnoses have shot up. Some see this as the positive result of increased awareness, others believe reductive, relatable social media posts have led to the condition being over-diagnosed.
“Alongside useful advice on how to manage symptoms, the online discussion around ADHD is often more concerned with endless taxonomies of traits and behaviours,” James Greig wrote in Gawker earlier this year. “These taxonomies are mostly based on vibes and personal anecdotes” such as “being silly around animals” and “are rarely supported by anything approaching evidence”. Others have noted this trend of “everything is a symptom” can mislead many people into thinking they have a disorder when they do not. (My own social media-driven gut concerns largely come down to “symptoms” most people experience after, say, eating spicy food.) While “raising awareness” of symptoms can be useful, too much “awareness” can be counterproductive. When so many vague “symptoms” are attributed to a serious disorder, it obscures the ultimate purpose of helping people identify the real ones.
There’s a reason this phenomenon has spread. On social media posting a left-field, over-egged opinion on something most people have never considered before is a good way to get attention. Every mainstream platform incentivises engagement at any cost. The more ridiculous the post, the more views are generated, resulting in an increasingly absurd circus of life advice. Even on those occasions when a product is not being advertised to “solve” the newly discovered problem, these videos serve both creator and platform in the constant battle for our monetised attention.
But no one thrives on this much feedback. While much of it amounts to navel-gazing, it can also breed genuine internal anxiety. As Isabel Munson wrote for Real Life magazine on algorithms increasingly pushing us to “define, diagnose, declare, and ‘solve’ the self”: “What you see on TikTok can then make you question who you are, as if the app must know something you don’t.”
Important exceptions aside, what do we get from the vast majority of this content? Does it make us feel better, now equipped to lead happier, healthier lives? No – the result is a nagging anxiety that a better life is out there, just, without these necessary tweaks, ever so slightly evading us.
[See also: The decline of text-based social media]