Crying On Instagram Isn’t A Flex. Can We Please Protect Some Sense Of Privacy In Our Lives?

By Andrea Mew··  9 min read
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Wait, wait, wait, what? Why is crying online even relevant right now? Well, CEO of Quilt, Ashley Sumner, penned an exclusive essay for Bustle about how she grew to embrace public, online crying.

Sumner and Quilt are working to reframe the narrative around “unvarnished displays of emotions” as the norm and not the exception. Quilt is so gung-ho on the trend that they even branded their own merchandise line that reads “Crying is Cool.”

Sumner’s intentions are admirable in some regards. Social media can often feel cutthroat and transactional if you’re viewing it through the lens of chasing the greatest volume of clout. With the community Sumner built, she wanted to reduce people’s social media stress by making the platforms themselves safe spaces to “build a community of people who you love and who love you back” to share your feelings with.

Yet, by turning this into a trend (which Sumner herself admits in the headline), this ultimately feels more like women are capitalizing on the sympathy they receive from viewers. When did this become a competition of who could be the most vulnerable and “real” online?

Is This Just Sadfishing?

Maybe it originated within the dredges of mid-2000s Myspace forums where angsty teenage girls cried for attention by…well…crying. They also probably posted graphic images of their self-harm, but that was a different time. Now, teenage girls aspire to follow in the footsteps of celebs who “get real” online by shedding a few tears (or film a full-blown meltdown) on camera.

Writer Rebecca Reid coined a term for this behavioral tread called sadfishing after Kendall Jenner made emotional Instagram posts about her struggle with acne. Those posts turned out to be sponsored Proactiv ads.

Sadfishing has now been used to discern between emotional posts online that are deliberately seeking sympathy and attention from ones which are genuine cries for help. It’s worth noting that this term relies on subjective judgment, so while the person being labeled as sadfishing might be exaggerating, it might not be intentional manipulation.

It’s neither healthy nor authentic to pick up your phone and record yourself mid-breakdown.

It’s entirely understandable why a lot of Instagram tearjerkers would be labeled as a sadfish attempt. Impressionable women see celebs and influencers like Dua Lipa, Sydney Sweeny, and so many more shedding tears on Instagram Live that it became a meme. “Imagine crying on live” is plastered all over Twitter and TikTok in response.

Let’s set the record straight: you should let yourself feel emotions and not feel ashamed of crying every now and then. But it’s neither healthy nor authentic to pick up your phone and record yourself or pose for a selfie mid-breakdown, especially when the end result is just letting total strangers in on your most intimate moments.

There’s Nothing Wrong with Crying

Crying can be cathartic. If you’ve been repressing sad feelings or letting depressive thoughts stew in your mind with no meaningful release, finally letting your emotions flow can ease your inner turmoil and tension.

Allowing yourself to cry when you’re experiencing sadness or grief instead of bottling up your emotions can benefit your mental health. Instead of forcing repressive coping, which researchers have found can make you mentally and physically sicker, crying can allow you to purge yourself of stress, emotional pain, and purify your psyche.

Crying also increases attachment behavior. This can be a net positive in your life by strengthening bonds between you and the people you confide in (but it also could backfire and create a sense of dependency for fulfillment and happiness). There’s such a thing as the Dependency Paradox, which explains that “the more fully we can depend on our partner and trust them as our secure base, the more independent we are able to be.”

Secure attachment, whether it's between a parent and a child or a husband and wife, comes naturally and can give healthy doses of oxytocin (love hormone) to your brain which, in turn, releases dopamine and suppresses stress hormones. Less of that cortisol leaves you feeling calmer and more content.

The sense of security, calmness, and confidence that you can have in your day to day life when you have that person or people who are your anchors helping you weather any storm leaves you empowered to be more independent because you can return to that secure base.

Oversharing Is Inauthentic

The problem arises when you have to ask yourself: are you starting to feel dependent on affirmation from strangers? Oversharing on any social media platform is becoming increasingly commonplace. You could say that platforms like Twitter enabled this behavior, giving people the power to share small bites of information about the most mundane things in their day-to-day life. Do we really need to know about a particular type of food someone’s eating at the exact moment they’re eating it? No, but does that really do any harm? Also no!

What does end up doing harm is when you lose ownership over your life’s intricate intimacies. There is value in sharing beauty, poignant thoughts, or humorous memes that you think other people would gain something from, but when oversharing even the most humdrum part of your life becomes a habit, are you really living authentically or are you performing for the public?

When you overshare your personal drama online, you’re disregarding the privacy of other parties involved. 

Some of us Gen Zers and Millennials will lament when older generations “boomer post” and overshare information, like when parents post intimate details or potentially embarrassing, private photos of their children growing up. This is actually backed up by data that shows that oversharing information increases with age.

It really begs the question: where is the line for consent being drawn? When you make the decision to overshare your personal drama online, you’re disregarding the privacy of other parties involved. As we’ve written elsewhere, “many influencers make a living by oversharing and their children are often included in that.” We’ve been sounding the alarm about “momfluencers” potentially exploiting their children for followers, likes, and overall clout. So shouldn’t the same principle apply for the dirty laundry that you might be airing out while you cry on live?

Vulnerability Shouldn’t Be a Competition

This urge to overshare could affect your children’s future, but it certainly affects you in the present as well. There’s evidence to show that dependency on social media for self-validation could lead to feelings of inferiority, social anxiety, depression, reduced self-esteem, and more. This compulsive behavior is often worsened if you already experience mental health disorders like anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder. 

Far too many people these days romanticize mental illness as if it’s a cute, quirky personality trait and as a result, there are a lot of incorrectly self-diagnosed people online. You know culture has gotten a bit weird when, in seeking something that makes you special and gets you attention, you turn mental illness into an aesthetic or a phase.

This is not to say that sharing personal struggles within online communities couldn’t give you critical support that your friends and family might not be providing for you. If you’re turning on your camera to cry on social media, perhaps there are better outlets for your emotions. If you don’t have a parent or spouse to confide in, then a trusted friend can be that secure base for you. 

If you’re crying live on social media, perhaps there are better outlets for your emotions.

If that option isn’t on the table either, then channeling your emotions into journaling, creative writing, physical exercise, or arts and crafts activities could function as much more productive activities than filming your breakdowns. Not feeling like you could concentrate on something productive? What about indulging in a good cry over a film or television show? There’s no shortage of movie lists on the internet tailored for melodramatic, somber moods that you can purge your feelings through vicariously.

Please Think About Pausing Before You Post

Don’t get lost in the division between the internet and the real world. In our digital world, online social interaction could potentially be a person’s best chance to receive social support. That being said, what you post online is subject to scrutiny from strangers. 

A video of you crying on Instagram or TikTok or live-streaming on Twitch becomes a part of your digital identity and whether it’s your intention or not… that’s free game for anyone to use either for or against you. The old adage about keeping a tidier online presence for school admissions departments or employers isn’t out there for no good reason! This also applies to your relationships, whether romantic or not. Everyone has social media these days and if a potential suitor, your colleague, a family member, or otherwise sees you airing out your dirty laundry on social media in an attempt to be "authentic" or go viral, it could have real consequences (or at the very least, make for an awkward conversation).

It’s also worth considering that constantly posting emotional distress online communicates to the public sphere that you’re vulnerable and potentially a target. Viewers might take advantage of your sadness, whether authentic or not, and bully you in an effort to feel power over you. It’s not always as simple as turning off your devices and ignoring cruel comments; what you bring from your private life to the public could haunt you forever.

Closing Thoughts

Instead of letting an unknown amount of strangers deep into your psyche, it might benefit you in the long run to work through your problems more introspectively instead of sadfishing as a flex. Confiding your inner emotions in trusted individuals rather than your social media followers doesn’t mean you can’t be “real” online. 

Showing an authentic version of yourself can include some ups and downs, but when it starts to seem like there’s a competition going on as to who can be the most vulnerable, we’re not on board. Despite voices online normalizing the trend to cry on live or snap a tearful selfie, it's in your best interests to protect a sense of privacy in your life

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