The effect of social media on our mental health has become a topic of perennial discussion. Twitter has often been criticized for allowing the kind of anonymous and relentless abuse that can lead to mental breakdowns. Facebook is a platform where friends can easily become enemies, drawn into conflict over political, ecological and personal issues. Instagram, the photo-sharing app owned by Facebook, has always seemed relatively tame; yes, it elicited its fair share of abusive commentary, but mostly consisted – and still is – of enjoyable photographs showing the most upbeat and positive aspects of people’s lives.
Over the past five years, however, a number of studies have explored whether viewing these funny picture feeds on Instagram can lead to negative mental health outcomes. This theory appeared to be confirmed last month, when internal Facebook documents were leaked to The Wall Street Journal said the company’s own research had the same findings: “Teens Accuse Instagram of Increasing Rates of Anxiety and Depression,” was the title of one slide. This reaction was spontaneous and consistent across all groups. But is Instagram really worse than other social media platforms? And if so, what do we do?
In May 2017, the UK’s Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) surveyed 1,479 young people aged 14-24 to rate a number of social media platforms on how they thought their mental health was being affected. . Instagram was rated worse, prompting RSPH to urge the platform to implement heavy use warnings.
He also suggested raising awareness among young people about the impact of social media on their well-being. At the heart of the problem, according to Chris Blackmore of the School of Health at the University of Sheffield, is the social comparison that Instagram unwittingly incites.
“We’re talking about people’s self-image and how that is visually mediated,” he says. “Thinking about your physical condition, does your face fit, do you have the right hair?” There is something about Instagram in particular that seems to be closely related to this dynamic. And teens and young adults are probably the times in life when they’re most likely to feel the pressure to compare themselves to others.
Facebook itself concluded that “the social comparison is worse on Instagram” in internal documents from last year. While Snapchat’s cartoon-like filters and TikTok’s performative aspects seem to shield young people from the worst effects of this comparison, Instagram seems to lay them bare, with body and lifestyle in the foreground.
These comparisons should not be about pop stars, actors and influencers either. While Facebook has found evidence that airbrushed images of celebrities certainly have an impact on young people (“We’re making body image problems worse for one in three teenage girls,” reads a slide from 2019), the comparison Social is just as easily done between peers, according to Blackmore. .
“Everyone is looking their best,” he says. “The default on Instagram was posting positive photos of ourselves, about the vacations that were so amazing. Sure, people can post about, say, a wonderful barbecue they had on the weekend, but they never talk about the heated argument they had while it was happening. ”
Relentless positivity (the “best highlight,” as has been described) can seem unattainable. Everyone’s life will inevitably seem mundane compared to a reel of other people’s highlights, and this can deliver what Blackmore has described as “a series of micro-knocks” to our self-esteem – and yet we persist in it. consume, relentlessly. “People use Instagram because it’s a competition,” a former Facebook executive said on an internal bulletin board.
Last week Facebook Vice President of Global Affairs Nick Clegg suggested steps were underway within Instagram to finally fix this issue. One of the changes was the implementation of the “heavy use” warning first suggested by the RSPH four years ago. The other: “When our systems see that a teenager is watching the same content over and over again, and that content may not be conducive to their well-being, we will encourage them to watch other content. ”
But what alternative content on Instagram could be guaranteed to be conducive to someone’s well-being? “Our desire to compare ourselves to others seems to be an integral part of Instagram’s engine,” says Blackmore. “Take that off, and what do you have left?” “
In recent days, a number of researchers, including psychologist Candice Odgers of the University of California, have reacted against the perceived dangers of Instagram. She noted in an interview with US National Public Radio that teens are tricked into believing social media is bad for them, and surveys consisting of self-reported interviews with these teens establish very little.
“If you ask [them] if they are addicted / hurt by social networks or their phones, the vast majority say yes, ”she said. “But if you actually do the research and relate their use to objective measures… there is very little to no connection.”
The evidence is complex, but Blackmore thinks it’s always incumbent on us to be more careful, no matter what. “I would advocate that people take huge advantage of Instagram and other platforms,” he says. “But it must be a good idea for us to be aware of what we are doing, to question it, to know if something is starting to have an impact on us.
“I don’t think we’ll escape possible damage [of Instagram] completely, but if we can eliminate a few percentage points of people who really suffer from it, it must be worth it. “
Update: October 16, 2021, 3:56 a.m.