Is Instagram bad for our mental health?

In a recent survey of around 1,500 young people, the Royal Society for Public Health found that amongst a range of social media apps, Instagram has the most negative impact on the mental health of its users, particularly in relation to issues such as anxiety, depression, loneliness, bullying and body image.

However, amongst the same demographic of people, Instagram also came out on top as the best app to turn to for means of self-expression, self-identity and emotional support.

The image-based app has a reported 700 million monthly users, and in August 2016 expanded its outreach with the introduction of Instagram Stories to rival its competitor, Snapchat. The new feature makes content available on a slideshow stream for 24 hours before disappearing.

With the ability to edit, filter and enhance whatever you choose to share with the world, it’s not hard to see why a constant stream of filtered images can take its toll on the mental well-being of Instagram users. When the only view that we have of another person’s life – be that a celebrity, classmate or close friend – fits within the boundaries of a little square box, cropped and filtered to perfection, our sense of reality can be manipulated and distorted.

Particularly for young people, seeing round-the-clock snapshots of friends constantly eating out, on holiday, or enjoying a night out they weren’t invited to promotes a worrying tendency to compare one’s own life to another’s, fostering feelings of jealousy and anxiety. Moreover, such dedication to the use of the app often means that users are too busy documenting their lives to simply savour the moment and live in the present.

Alice Cruickshank highlights the ups and downs of using Instagram as a young fashion blogger:  “I do feel a lot of pressure to always post my ‘best’ self. If I’m having a bad day, I’ll still post photos of myself looking glamorous or really happy. But at the same time, I’ve met so many amazing, supportive women through the Instagram blogger scene, and I receive lots of inspiration from it for my work”.

The ‘community’ aspect of Instagram is certainly one of its more positive attributes, as users with common interests come together to network, share ideas and express their creative identities. Verity Park, a Leeds University graduate, uses Instagram in her professional life as well as her personal: “I think it is a really great way of communicating with people, and I see my own Instagram as a digital photobook of my favourite memories, so in that way I find it really useful”. Others students have highlighted that the app gives them inspiration in their day-to-day lives, particularly in terms of fashion, travel, cooking and work-out routines.  

In an interview with The Guardian, Prof Sir Simon Wessely, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists highlighted that “social media plays a role in unhappiness, but it has as many benefits as it does negatives . . . We need to teach children how to cope with all aspects of social media – good and bad – to prepare them for an increasingly digitised world. There is real danger in blaming the medium for the message”.

It would seem that apps like Instagram have changed the way we experience everyday life, from the way we exercise, the things we eat and the places we travel to. Perhaps, then, the advice to take away from this is that everything should be used in moderation. When you next find yourself mindlessly scrolling through the Instagram ‘Explore’ page, bear in mind that you can never truly know the context of a photograph unless you are the person taking it. People are far less likely to document a bad day to share with the world on social media than they would a good one, but it’s important to remember that nobody is really that perfect. Instagram can be a fun distraction from our day-to-day activities, but it is not a substitute for real life.

Image: Yang Yifei

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