An obsession with social media took LEANNE MASKELL to the brink of suicide and, says the model and activist, it’s now destroying the mental health of an entire generation. But, as she tells Anna Moore, it’s never too late to break the habit.
Leanne Maskell was 24 and living in Australia when she began to plan her suicide.
No one knew or could have guessed because she seemed to have everything. Leanne – 5ft 11in, a beguiling, pale-blue-eyed blonde – had worked as a model for more than a decade (appearing in Vogue and I-D), having started at 13 years old. She had graduated with a law degree in London then taken off to Bondi Beach. Her Instagram page showed her modelling bikinis for big brands, partying on superyachts and travelling on private jets.
From a young age, Leanne knew how it felt when the way your life looks drifts far from reality. Modelling thrives on creating perfect images. The constant pressure from agencies and clients to lose weight had led her to an eating disorder. At 14, she was modelling wedding dresses. At 21, she was strapping on fake bellies for maternity swimwear. (‘My sister was pregnant at the time and said, “What are you doing? Pregnant women will look at those pictures and have no idea that the models are young size eights!”’) Those bikini shoots in Australia were so heavily edited that Leanne didn’t think they even looked like her, and the photos on her own feed were carefully Photoshopped by Leanne herself.
‘By the time I was 24, I was really self-obsessed,’ she says. ‘My dimensions had to be perfect. And I had to get the same number of likes each time.’ The people she tagged in her pictures weren’t real friends – she hung out with them simply to create content and raise her profile. And even her following was fake: as instructed by he agency, Leanne paid for Instagram followers and likes and comments. All the models she knew did the same.
In her new book The Reality Manifesto, Leanne, now 29, brilliantly sets out the multiple ways that ‘living virtually’ – immersed in social media, cut off from real life and close relationships – impacts brain health, especially in the young. But back then, aged 24 on Bondi Beach, the ultimate ‘influencer playground’, she had no idea why she felt so bad.
‘My life looked perfect,’ she says. ‘I had amazing opportunities, money, “beauty” – although I didn’t feel beautiful – but I was waking in the middle of the night crying, thinking, “Why am I still alive?”’ she says.
‘I thought I must have some serious mental health disorders and I remember googling them – bipolar, borderline personality disorder – and thinking, “I’ve got all of them.”’
After finding the perfect ‘suicide spot’ (for weeks, Leanne obsessively viewed its location on her phone) and setting a date to do it (a Sunday), she decided to enjoy her last week alive. ‘I had one week left to live, so I should be able to eat what I wanted – it didn’t matter if I got fat. I began each day with a chocolate almond croissant. I’d never have allowed myself that before,’ she says. ‘I stopped using my phone so much, and doing things to create “content”.
‘I remember going for a three-hour walk without my phone and just felt completely different afterwards. I had a photoshoot, too, and it was incredible: for once, I wasn’t overthinking it or worrying about whether I was good enough. I just really enjoyed it. By the end of that week, I was thinking, “What the hell am I doing? It doesn’t make sense to kill myself.”’
It was the start of a long recovery. Leanne deleted her Instagram account. ‘Getting rid of the whole thing felt amazing,’ she says. She started building closer, real-life relationships with family and friends – previously, they had stayed in touch by ‘liking’ each other’s social media posts. Instead of self-diagnosing through Google, Leanne sought medical help from a psychiatrist in London, who explained that she had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and she began a treatment programme. For the first time, she could make sense of her racing mind and lifelong struggle with focus and attention span.
READ MORE: 5 signs you’re addicted to your phone
She also wrote two books. The first, The Model Manifesto, shone a light on exploitation in the modelling industry. The response was huge and led the Government to establish a working group to tackle the issues raised. The second was ADHD: An A-Z, an in-depth account of living with the disorder, which led companies such as Microsoft and Adidas to request that she come in and talk to employees. Other readers contacted her directly for help, so Leanne trained as an ADHD coach, too.
Very soon, she began to doubt that the problems she was hearing about from parents and their children could all be down to ADHD. The teenager who wouldn’t come out of his room; the 15-year-old who was part of a ‘self-harm squad’ at school; the countless young people who had diagnosed themselves with ADHD because they’d seen it on TikTok, who couldn’t sit through a 45-minute maths lesson or even get to the end of a YouTube video because a 15-second TikTok clip was all they were used to.
‘Parents were calling me about their children who were self-harming or suicidal or isolated or unable to focus, and the one thing that seemed to link all of the stories was a serious addiction to social media,’ says Leanne. She suspected that many of them didn’t have ADHD, but instead had variable attention stimulus trait (VAST), a term used to describe what happens when ADHD-like symptoms (lowered attention span, inability to focus) are caused by technology, social media and screen addiction.
At a very young age, modelling had hurled Leanne into a fake world where she was never quite thin or perfect enough; today, all teenagers live in that world. Their phones, with their constant notifications, the ‘if you like that, you’ll like this’ algorithms, have led them ever further from reality and hooked them into unhappy habit loops.
The Reality Manifesto takes a deep dive into the dangers of social media with a user-friendly A-to-Z format. (B is for Beauty, E is for Expectations, J is for Jealousy, X is for X-rated…) When it comes to beauty and body image, it’s not surprising that Leanne has plenty to say. ‘Before social media, you might see a billboard of an attractive actress and compare yourself, feel bad, then walk past,’ she says. ‘Now, if you’ve looked at those images just once on your phone, you will be targeted from the minute you wake up, and your insecurities will be exploited to keep you hooked.
‘You’ll see it in so many forms,’ she continues. ‘The influencers on your Instagram feed, the teenagers dancing in TikToks who look thinner than you, the filters that change the shape of your face to create a new, impossible standard of perfection. The Kim Kardashian bodies created by surgery or Photoshop that do not exist.
‘When I was very young, I was allowed to be online for only half an hour a day and remember once finding what I now know was quite horrifying content about eating disorders and how to make yourself sick. Today, a teenager who visits a site like that just once, on a bad day, will fall into a pit. From then on, algorithms will take them to more and more extreme content – one difficult moment and they’ve fallen.’
Leanne blames the social media platforms themselves. ‘Young people are made to feel like it’s their choice, but it’s not,’ she says. ‘The world’s most talented engineers and behavioural scientists have been paid to get us as addicted to our phones as possible, to keep us hooked.’
For this reason, she is concerned by the Government’s focus on policing ‘harmful content’ rather than the platforms themselves. ‘Harmful content is just a symptom,’ she says. ‘The real problem is the business models that exist to keep people addicted.’
With the Online Safety Bill making its way through Parliament, Leanne has launched a petition to seek legislation that addresses social media’s addictive features such as infinite scrolling, likes and push notifications. Her petition points out that since Facebook bought Instagram in 2012 (at that point the platform employed only 13 people and didn’t make a penny in profit), there has been a 94 per cent rise in suicide rates for women and girls aged between ten and 24, an alarming surge in hospital admissions for eating disorders and an increase in people seeking ADHD assessments (for which the waiting list is now up to seven years).
What can young people do themselves? ‘It shouldn’t be their responsibility,’ she says, ‘and coming off social media completely is unrealistic, especially when everyone you know is on it. It helps if you treat it like sugar – something you can enjoy, but too much of which is harmful.
‘Approach social media with your eyes wide open. The things you see aren’t real: you’re being directed to more extreme content which takes you ever further from reality. Social media companies aren’t benevolent charities providing platforms for free. They’re also making [profits equivalent to] the GDP of entire countries. You’re the product, not the customer.’
Leanne is still seeking the perfect balance when it comes to her own use – she knows it isn’t easy. ‘I go on LinkedIn a lot now – it’s quite a fun place to be! If you can find a platform that really works for you, then use it, but think about the purpose: why am I on here and why am I posting? Am I seeking some sort of validation and is this really the best way to get it?’
Her relationship with Instagram remains problematic. ‘I go through phases,’ she admits. ‘I have an account and when I get to a point where my use is becoming slightly unhealthy, I deactivate it and take a break. I think I might delete the whole thing, although I’ve been told that if I want people to read this book, I need a big Instagram following. But I don’t – that’s what I’m writing about!’
Although she still accepts the occasional modelling assignment (‘if you can do it on your own terms, it’s not a bad job’), her main focus is helping parents and young people through what she describes as a public health emergency.
‘Kids are having their childhood stolen from them,’ she says. ‘They’re living through screens which are cutting them off from the real world, exploiting their insecurities to keep them hooked and holding them to impossible standards of perfection. I lived in that fake world from the age of 13. It’s my duty to show the mess it makes.’
ARE YOU A SCREEN ADDICT?
Leanne’s tips for changing your relationship with social media
♥ Treat any platforms profiting from your attention with caution. Question everything you’re shown, including posts, news and search results.
♥ Do a self-assessment: how much time do you spend on screens each day? Track your screen time across all devices for a week and multiply it by 52. How do you feel about this? What would you do with your life if you had these hours back each year?
♥ How long can you go without visiting your favourite social media platform? Challenge yourself to be more conscious of using it. Try doing something else before opening apps in the morning.
♥ Use apps such as ‘Freedom’ to block social media apps across devices.
♥ Avoid apps that tell you who has unfollowed you – you do not need to know, and they can fuel insecurity.
♥ Remember that social media can amplify negative feelings, so try to use it only when you feel confident and happy in yourself. Find mood-boosting activities unrelated to social media, such as yoga or writing in a journal.
♥ Identify the people whose profiles make you feel negatively about yourself, or those you return to, despite not liking or even following them. Can you block or ‘mute’ these people?
♥ Think carefully about your posts. Can you identify an overall purpose? Ask yourself what your motivation is for everything you share.
♥ Enjoy real life. How ‘present’ are you when having experiences such as going on holiday? What would it be like to have an exciting experience without then posting it online – can you try it?
♥ Create an experience bucket list, eg, visiting your dream destination, trying out a new activity. Make short-, medium- and long-term goals and think about how you can reach them. Can you make an effort to try to do one of these within the next month?
@PHOEBESUMMER/INSTAGRAM, RANKIN, CATHERINE HARBOUR