The effect of social media on our mental health has become a perennial talking point. Twitter has been frequently criticised for allowing the kind of relentless, anonymous abuse that can cause mental breakdowns. Facebook is a platform where friends can easily become enemies, drawn into conflict over matters political, ecological and personal. Instagram, the photo-sharing app owned by Facebook, always seemed comparatively docile; yes, it elicited its fair share of abusive comments, but mainly consisted – and still consists – of pleasant photographs showcasing the more upbeat, positive aspects of people’s lives.
For the past five years, however, a number of studies have explored whether viewing these streams of good-time pictures on Instagram can result in negative mental health outcomes. This theory appeared to be confirmed last month, when internal Facebook documents leaked to The Wall Street Journal indicated that the company’s own research had the same findings: “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression,” was the title of one slide. This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups. But is Instagram really any worse than the other social media platforms? And if it is, what is being done about it?
In May 2017, the UK’s Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) surveyed 1,479 young people between the ages of 14 and 24 to score a number of social media platforms on how they believed their mental health was being impacted. Instagram was rated worst, prompting RSPH to urge the platform to implement heavy usage warnings.
It also suggested young people be educated about the impact of social media on their well-being. At the core of the problem, according to Chris Blackmore from the School of Health at the University of Sheffield, is the social comparison that Instagram unwittingly prompts.
“We're talking about people's self-image, and how that's mediated visually,” he says. “Thinking about how you are physically, does your face fit, do you have the right hair? There's something about Instagram in particular that seems to be tied quite closely to that dynamic. And teenagers and young adults are probably at the time of life where they're most likely to feel the pressure to compare themselves to other people.”
Facebook itself concluded that “social comparison is worse on Instagram” in internal documents from last year. While the cartoon-like filters of Snapchat and the performative aspects of TikTok appear to shelter young people from the worst effects of that comparison, Instagram appears to lay them bare, with body and lifestyle very much in the foreground.
Those comparisons don’t have to be with pop stars, actors and influencers, either. While Facebook found evidence that airbrushed images of celebrities certainly had an impact on young people (“We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,” reads a 2019 slide), social comparison happens just as easily between peers, according to Blackmore.
“Everybody puts on their best face,” he says. “The default on Instagram has been to post positive pictures of ourselves, about the holiday that was so amazing. Of course, people may post about, say, a wonderful barbecue they had at the weekend, but they never talk about the flaming row they had while it was happening.”
The relentless positivity (the “highlights reel”, as it has been described) can feel unattainable. Everyone’s life will inevitably feel mundane in comparison to a highlights reel of other people’s, and this may be delivering what Blackmore described as “a series of micro-blows” to our self esteem – and yet we persist in consuming it, relentlessly. “People use Instagram because it’s a competition,” said one former Facebook executive on an internal message board.
Last week, Facebook's vice president of global affairs, Nick Clegg, suggested moves were afoot within Instagram to finally address this issue. One change was the implementation of the “heavy usage” warning first suggested by the RSPH four years ago. The other: “Where our systems see that a teenager is looking at the same content over and over again, and it's content that may not be conducive to their well-being, we will nudge them to look at other content.”
But which alternative content on Instagram could be guaranteed conducive to someone’s well-being? “Our desire to compare ourselves to other people does seem to be integral to the engine of Instagram,” says Blackmore. “Take that away, and what are you left with?”
In recent days, there has been pushback against the perceived dangers of Instagram from a number of researchers, including psychologist Candice Odgers at the University of California. She noted in an interview with US National Public Radio that teenagers are primed to believe social media is bad for them, and surveys consisting of self-reported interviews with those teenagers establish very little.
“If you ask [them] if they are addicted/harmed by social media or their phones, the vast majority say yes,” she said. “But if you actually do the research and connect their use to objective measures ... there is very little to no connection.”
The evidence is complex, but Blackmore believes the onus is still on us to take greater care, regardless. “I would advocate that people get huge benefit from Instagram and other platforms,” he says. “But it has to be a good idea for us to be conscious of what we're doing, questioning it, aware of whether something is starting to have an impact upon us.
"I don't think we'll escape the possible harms [of Instagram] completely, but if we can shave off a few percentage points of people who really do suffer as a consequence, that's got to be worthwhile.”