When 24-year-old fashion blogger Scarlett Dixon posted a picture of herself having breakfast, the internet turned nasty. “The best of days start with a smile and positive thoughts. And pancakes. And strawberries. And bottomless tea,” Dixon wrote on her scarlettlondon Instagram feed, under an image of her looking flawless on a freshly made bed flanked by heart-shaped helium balloons.
The sponsored post – for Listerine mouthwash, a bottle of which is visible on the side of the shot – was swiftly reposted on Twitter. “Fuck off this is anybody’s normal morning,” wrote Nathan from Cardiff. “Instagram is a ridiculous lie factory made to make us all feel inadequate.” His post, which has garnered more than 111,000 likes (22 times as many as Dixon’s original) and almost 25,000 retweets, prompted a wave of criticism, with the more printable comments ranging from “Fakelife!” and “Bunny-boiler” to “Let’s pop her balloons” and “Who keeps Listerine on their bedside table? Serial killers, that’s who.”
That hostility feels par for the course on Twitter. The social network is a notorious hotbed of abusive strangers hurling abuse at other abusive strangers, who then all occasionally come together to bully a celebrity off the internet over some minor failing, such as being a woman in a Star Wars film. Instagram, by contrast, looks like the friendliest social network imaginable. It’s a visually led community where the primary method of interaction is double-tapping an image to like it, where posts that go viral tend to do so because of positivity rather than outrage and where many of the biggest accounts are famous dogs and cats. What’s not to like?
But, for a growing number of users – and mental health experts – the very positivity of Instagram is precisely the problem. The site encourages its users to present an upbeat, attractive image that others may find at best misleading and at worse harmful. If Facebook demonstrates that everyone is boring and Twitter proves that everyone is awful, Instagram makes you worry that everyone is perfect – except you.
In the days following her initial Instagram post, Dixon pointed out the irony that this fear – that the unreality of social media is harming people – was itself being used to justify the thousands attacking her.
“Each time I refresh my page, hundreds of new nasty messages pour on to my Instagram, Twitter and YouTube, some of which have contained malicious death threats,” she wrote in a follow-up Instagram post, accompanying a picture of her in Venice with an ice-cream. “There are now hundreds of thousands of tweets circling the internet, shaming me.”
“My feed isn’t a place of reality,” Dixon added. “I mean who spends their time in such a beautiful city, perched on a ledge, ice-cream in hand and smile permanently affixed to her face? It’s staged, guys.
“I personally don’t think my content is harmful to young girls, but I do agree Instagram can present a false expectation for people to live up to.”
But whether or not Dixon’s feed is harmful, there is growing support for the idea that Instagram isn’t great for its users’ mental health.
In 2017, the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), an independent charity that seeks to improve people’s wellbeing, conducted a UK-wide survey of 14- to 24-year-olds, asking them about the big five social media platforms: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat and Instagram. Users ranked how their use of the platforms affected everything from the quality of their sleep to their Fomo – the fear of missing out on what others are enjoying.
Instagram came last, scoring particularly badly for its effects on sleep, body image and Fomo. Only Snapchat came close in its overall negativity, saved by a more positive effect on real-world relationships, while YouTube scored positively on almost every metric – except its effect on sleep, for which it was the worst of all the platforms.
“On the face of it, Instagram can look very friendly,” says the RSPH’s Niamh McDade. “But that endless scrolling without much interaction doesn’t really lead to much of a positive impact on mental health and wellbeing. You also don’t really have control over what you’re seeing. And you quite often see images that claim to be showing you reality, yet aren’t. That’s especially damaging to young men and women.”
The risk of developing an unhealthy body image is often highlighted, but McDade emphasises that this is just one aspect. “Some people may be looking at feeds full of cars, and it’s giving them anxiety and depression as they can’t afford them.”
For Stephen, a 24-year-old from London, the unreality led him to develop unhealthy behaviours online. “I was going through a bit of heartbreak at the time,” he says, “and any experience of seeing my ex’s name on Instagram killed me. I was pretty down and found myself predominantly using Instagram to either ‘punish’ myself by looking at my ex, or using the browse feature to distract me. I found myself looking at attractive women a lot when they’d come up in the browse feature, which would then cause more to be shown.
“I was getting to a point where I was feeding an unhealthy habit [of forming a warped view of women] and making myself feel worse.” Stephen then took a year-long break from the app, during which he wrote a dissertation on its harmful effects on wellbeing and body satisfaction.
“The problem with Instagram is that you, almost exclusively, share content that is meant to reflect positively on yourself,” he says. “On Twitter or Facebook, you see much more content that isn’t, ‘Hey, look at my great life.’”
Almost every user adds fuel to the flames. Even as we’re being made miserable by the unreal lives that we follow, we share an unreal version of our own lives. “I have been on Instagram since 2013 and in the beginning I enjoyed it,” says Adnan, a 25-year-old Syrian who lives in Cape Town. “But, as the years passed, it changed from being a friendly environment, where most people posted food pictures, into a competitive social platform where everyone filters out their lives to represent a life that does not exist. Nobody looks good all the time, nobody is always happy. When things get tough, I get really upset when I see other people having the ‘perfect’ life.” And yet, Adnan says, “I am also guilty of trying to show the best side of my life to people.”
But Instagram has always been about looking flawless. What has changed to spark such a backlash? Among users I spoke to, one event was cited time and again: the introduction, in mid-2016, of Instagram’s algorithmic timeline. It was one of the largest changes to the platform since it was bought by Facebook in 2012. Rather than presenting users with a cross-section of what the people they were following were up to at any given moment, Instagram began populating feeds with the most noteworthy posts from those accounts, often reaching back days or even weeks to pull in particularly compelling content. In effect, the service began promoting a curated, unrealistic version of an already curated, unrealistic feed.
Talya Stone, a parenting blogger at Motherhood: The Real Deal, went cool on Instagram shortly afterwards. “For a long time, Instagram was one of the only places where the interaction felt real,” she says. “Then the algorithm came along and blew that out of the water. The whole point of these social platforms is that they are supposed to enhance social connectivity – yet, bizarrely, they are based on an algorithm that seems to be working against this very notion.”
Victoria Hui, who runs the lifestyle blog the Lust Listt, says there is another issue affecting “pro” Instagram users – those who make a living (or hope to) from advertising and sponsorship. “The new algorithm creates a popularity contest between creators, so that they resort to unethical business decisions in order to keep themselves at the top of the food chain.”
Unscrupulous creators started buying followers, likes and comments in an attempt to fool the algorithm; as Instagram clamped down on that, Hui says, those users formed secret “comment pods” conspiring to share “each and every post with each other in order to generate ‘authentic’ and immediate engagement”.
While influencers such as Dixon often get the lion’s share of the blame for the epidemic of unreality on Instagram, it’s just as prevalent at the grassroots as it is among the “Insta-celebrities”.
I stopped using the app earlier this year, when I realised that I reliably felt worse after opening it than I did before I started. But my Instagram – a locked account, with just a couple of hundred followers and posts – is almost exclusively for keeping in touch with people I got to know in other ways. The closest I get to following influencers is the pop star Carly Rae Jepsen and an Instagram-famous husky.
Still, every time I open the app, I’m presented with an endless feed of my friends and family doing incredible things, having a wonderful time, without me.
There’s the friend whose wedding I wasn’t invited to; I found out about it through the app. There’s the friend who is looking fantastic after every workout and lets us all know. And there’s the friend who lives in New York, apparently over in London for the weekend without telling me.
Meanwhile, I’m doing nothing of note – except sitting on Instagram. At least I don’t suffer the same from the adverts. Because of a glitch in my privacy settings, Instagram believes I am a Bangkok teenager and serves me nothing but adverts written in Thai for acne cures and KFC. This is not a joke.
When I tell friends about my dissatisfaction with the app, their responses are mixed. Some cite conventional wisdom, telling me to unfollow the influencers with a commercial imperative to sell me a perfect life and devote the app to keeping up with the friends I care about. Rob, for instance, follows “fewer than 100 people, all family and friends”.
But I don’t follow any influencers, and the friends I care about most are the ones most likely to create that familiar pang of Fomo.
Others offer exactly the opposite advice, arguing that my problem is not following enough influencers. I should focus less on using Instagram to find out what people I care about are doing and more on using it as a source of information and inspiration. One friend, Lynsey, cites Present and Correct, which sells exquisitely designed office supplies, as her go-to happy place. Another, Marie, recommends her personal mix of “roughly one-third friends, one-third MPs and one-third drag queens”.
It’s true that there is a whole world of information best communicated in a visual medium. While some fitness-focused Instagrams leave you feeling like a fat blob of plasticine, others are sources of useful advice, laser-targeted at people in your situation.
But I’ve tried that version of Instagram, too, and I worry that it provides only a veneer of engagement, while forever hovering on the precipice of impossibly perfect breakfasts eaten by impossibly perfect people. Even Facebook, Instagram’s owner, warns against using its products in this way. “In general,” the company wrote on its corporate blog last year, “when people spend a lot of time passively consuming information – reading but not interacting with people – they report feeling worse afterward”.
Of course, Facebook’s answer was that everyone should post more. But it would say that, wouldn’t it? Another option is to follow the guidance of the RSPH. As part of “scroll-free September” the charity is encouraging users to aim for anything between complete cold turkey and simply stopping at certain times, such as in the bedroom or during meals.
There is one final possibility, proposed by a few others when I shared my own Insta-woes: don’t give up on Instagram, just give up on people.
There are enough dogs, cats, birds, otters and ferrets to fill a social network of their own – from Jiro the otter to Gotcha the cockatoo – and it’s very hard to scroll through pet Instagram and feel bad about yourself.
Though you may start wishing for a more photogenic labradoodle.
For more information and advice on issues with social media, go to the RSPH: rsph.org.uk
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