I first ventured into the dark side of the Internet at age 13, clad in a pilled blue sweater, skinny jeans too tight on my not-so-skinny legs, and a feeling of insecurity about how I looked.
Like a lot of teenagers, I was troubled during in high school. I changed in the bathroom stall of the gymnasium locker rooms, terrified of watching taller, thinner, curvier, prettier girls walk by, terrified of what they would think of me, terrified of what I would think of my own disgusting body if forced to confront myself in the mirror.
All I wanted was to be beautiful. A little bonier; a little better. I thought that if I could see my collarbones, trace the edges of my ribs, feel the protrusions of my hip bones with a little more sharpness, maybe I would be happier. Maybe I would be OK or, even, good enough.
Had I talked to a parent, a counselor, a teacher, or some other adult, they would have recognized the beginnings of an eating disorder. I like to think that they would have seen the way I sucked in my stomach when I walked, the mints I chewed to hide my purging, the way I read in a corner during lunch so I wouldn't have to see food around me. Had I talked to a friend, maybe they too would have seen something was wrong.
Buried deep under my covers, I cried myself to sleep every night for months, illuminated by the glow of my phone screen showing me model after model after stick-thin model—each tagged, labeled, and raised on a divine digital pedestal with the words #beautiful, #inspiration, #goals, and #thinspiration. I wished the Internet could teach me how to look beautiful, how to lose weight. And the Internet delivered, slipping me tantalizingly easy advice on how to survive on 300 calories a day and how to starve the right way, carefully explained in floral lettering.
I wanted the Internet to give me friends, anyone who understood how I felt and why. And the Internet delivered here too. Although I had already been visiting the social networking site Tumblr for beachy photos and fashion inspiration, I soon stumbled onto a community of girls just like me. After feeling isolated for so long, it was a blessing to feel understood and to have someone say, "I know how you feel."
I started following blogs with profile names like ana_baby100 and thighgaps_and_chill, talking to the girls through direct messages. I quickly found myself welcomed to the pro-ana (anorexia) and pro-mia (bulimia) world. I joined support groups where we held each other accountable for sticking to our "goal weights," gave each other permission to reprimand and call each other "fat pigs" when we cheated on our diets, and poured out thousands of messages of toxic love and encouragement on our "fitness" or "thinness journey."
Though it came at a terrible cost, I had finally found a community. In a twisted way, we all truly thought we were helping each other—when, really, we were making each other sicker.
I didn't know it then, but getting help for a mental-health issue does not come via a Google search. It takes a network of supportive friends, family, and educated health-care professionals with your best interests at heart. Today I am endlessly grateful for the intervention and genuine support from my best friends—online and offline—who urged me to get help and begin my recovery.
Mental illness affects one in five adults in the United States, and the majority living with mental illness are not receiving adequate treatment. One of the best things about the Internet is its ability to bring together marginalized individuals to share their experiences, support each other, and bond. The thriving online communities of queer folks and people of color are a testament to how powerfully positive these spaces can be.
While the Internet is also home to dangerous places like the sites I was a part of, I do not want to impart a message of fear. Instead, I hope that people will think of the Internet as a tool, just like a pen or a sword. Its impact depends on who wields it, and for what purpose.
Although I have been down one dark alley of the Internet, I remain an optimist because I have also witnessed the positive sides of social media. The platform that exacerbated my mental illness is the one that also gave me comfort and companionship when I had no one else. I had finally found a place where I belonged. And when my health worsened, several of my Tumblr followers were the first to notice and urge me to seek help. Some sent me recommendations on how to navigate local mental-health systems and hotline numbers, and offered to talk to me about what I was going through.
Indeed, there are many flourishing communities of online discussion boards, support groups, and Facebook pages for people living with chronic illness and mental illness.
Although mental health will always be a challenge in my life, I am proud to be standing on the other side and to help others still struggling. And I am proud to be part of a generation that will be tackling these issues to create a healthier future.
Understanding Gen Z, a collaboration between Pacific Standard and Stanford's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, investigates the historical context and social science research that helps explain the next generation. Join our newsletter to see new stories, and let us know your thoughts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Understanding Gen Z was made possible by Stanford University's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) and its director, Margaret Levi, who hosted the iGen Project. Further support came from the Knight Foundation.
See more in this series:
Is Generation Z More Scared Than Earlier Generations?
The messages they're getting in the media are terrifying—and the sustained sense of real threats could leave this generation with psychological scars. Read more
Have Headphones Made Gen Z More Insular?
Gen Z kids spend an average of four hours a day listening to audio with headphones. Watching my children consume their music with plugs stuffed in their ears, I wonder if we're all missing out on opportunities to engage. Read more
There's a Crisis of Reading Among Generation Z
As young people read less and less, they may be short-circuiting their reading brains. Read more
Stop Associating Video Games With Youth Gun Violence
Separating our conversations about school shootings from our conversations about video games will improve our approach to both. Read more
I Helped Create the Internet, and I'm Worried About What It's Doing to Young People
At some level, we are all experiencing the Web's toxic possibilities. But as with other toxins, young developing bodies and brains are more susceptible. Read more
Can Artificial Intelligence Solve Our Problems With Harassment Online?
The right kind of A.I. can respond to any threat of violence, thereby encouraging bystanders to take action to maintain responsible online communities. Read more