30 minutes on Instagram can damage your self-esteem.
It was named the worst social media for mental health.
As I scroll through my Instagram feed for the 30th time already today (probably), I’m
inundated with flawless selfies and perfect bikini pictures on unbelievable beaches. My
discovery page is jam-packed with the pics, and full of digitally edited photos dressed up in innocent unedited outfits. How is her body like that? Are her legs really like that? Even
when looking for it, it’s hard to really see which ones have been subject to manipulation. It’s only when I see ‘real’ women post about their ‘real’ body twenty posts deep I’m reminded it’s not all doom and gloom and there was finally someone I related to. Ever shut down the app feeling like there was room for improvement? You’re not in the minority.
The Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), found Instagram is the most negative social
media platform, while You Tube sits pretty as the most positive. Instagram’s so hot right
now, 91% of 16-24-year-olds are on social media, and checking it has been described as
more addicting than alcohol and cigarettes. Depression in young people has risen 70% in the past 25 years and increased rates of anxiety have been closely linked to social media use. As a result, RSPH are calling for action from the government, policy makers and social media companies to help promote and encourage the positive aspects of social media, whilst moderating the negative sides. They’re suggesting Instagram should highlight to users when photos of people have been digitally altered.
In a separate study, Macquarie university learned women who spent 30 minutes or more on Instagram each day, were most likely to stress about their weight and appearance. Spending more time on social media results in greater self-objectification, mediated by the extent to which women accepted the beauty ideals presented to them and making visual comparisons to these people. Negative body image isn’t a new issue, but paired with social media it’s a potentially more damaging reality and not the filtered, picturesque place it’s made out to be by the Insta-elite.
Women in the UK have the second worst levels of self-esteem in the world, with only 20% saying they feel confident in their own bodies, according to Dove’s Self-Esteem Project. This is equal to 10 million women across our country with a negative body image and feeling depressed about their shape and size. We’re bombarded with over 5,000 digitally enhanced images every week thanks to social media and advertising- quite difficult not to compare yourself even slightly when we’re flooded with them.
I spoke to Megan Hurst, a psychologist at the University of Sussex who specialises in body image. Megan says she focuses a lot on social media as it’s blowing up right now, and a real concern about what social media exposure is doing to women’s and men’s body image. She too reiterates the fact people compare themselves against the idealised images we see on Instagram and this makes us feel worse about ourselves. “When you think about the social comparisons you’re making on Instagram, a lot of the time people are following their friends rather than these models and one of the issues with social comparison is we tend to
compare more to people relevant to us.” Having idealised versions of our peers can actually have some really negative effects. Megan tells me even when we have evidence a selfie has been touched up, it doesn’t seem to prevent those negative effects we experience. “Even though we are very much aware what we are seeing isn’t necessarily real life, it does still have an impact.”
Megan says Instagram has a lot to answer for, down to the fact it is so visually focused and a combination of paid for content and advertising is linked explicitly with consumer culture and the importance of attractiveness. What is attractiveness? She asks. Typically, we’re talking thin and conventionally attractive women, but Megan thinks there’s more to it. “We also need to think about more materialistic ideals about having goods and money, and how important this also is in people’s lives.” I’m the first to admit I always make sure a snap goes on the gram when I go on holiday or go somewhere nice- inevitably giving off the impression I do wonderful things all the time. I don’t, obviously. “Paid for adverts are definitely part of the problem, but also the sheer volume of pictures people are seeing.” The extreme amount of these conventionally attractive and slim girls selling ‘detox’ teas, holding an unopened packet on a sandy beach in a bikini- they’re selling the whole idea and lifestyle that supposedly comes with looking that good.
One group of Instagram users less critical of these posts is children and young people. “We know from research children tend to be more vulnerable to the same media exposure to body image ideals as adult women.” They aren’t as good at differentiating between adverts and content, and don’t engage any differently. As adults, Megan says we can consciously distance ourselves, but they view the same content as older, more mindful users and the effects on children can be just as negative, or even more negative.
A lot of research looks at how much time you’ve spent on social media, or which platforms you favour, but Megan’s work looks at people’s motivations and behaviours they’re engaging in. “It’s more what the platform encourages people to do, and Instagram encourages you to post pictures of yourself and to evaluate pictures of other people.” It’s not always a case of social media being bad, but the content you see, who you’re following, what you’re being exposed to and how you respond to it.
“If you’re an individual and you want to change something, here’s a suggestion,” so viewing your feed isn’t always helpful, Megan says. Content is created by user, so creates less pressure that can be exerted on media producers. Megan suggests it’s much more
complicated than we presume at face value. It’s us making the content, not just culture
dictating, and people are helping to sustain that culture. “It’s actually worth pointing out
there is an amazing potential for social activism, so one thing we see coming through is
body positivity.” More women are actively being more positive about their bodies online,
and those negative mood effects we see when looking at fitspiration don’t happen when we see these posts. Megan says we experience elevated moods, leaving users feeling more inspired. “I think to the extent social media encourages social connection and encourages meaningful social connection and that’s going to be a positive influence.”
The RSPH too found social media can be used to connect more with other users to get
emotional support. Being able to make a connection with other people can also enable and invite more discussion about mental struggles and body image. Izzy Allen, an 18-year-old studying at Bristol University, says she’s made some of her best friends through Instagram and feels more confident from finding these friends. “I don’t follow those ‘Insta models’ because I’ve never felt the need to- I’d rather follow girls my own age with my own style.” If Izzy follows someone considered Instagram ‘famous’, then it’s for a reason. Izzy explains she’s recently found herself getting into fitness, so follows people she can learn from. “I only follow a handful at most, there’s only so many perfect figures I can take.”
Even though Izzy cautiously limits her exposure to the negative posts Megan spoke about, it doesn’t stop them appearing in her discovery page of the app. Seeing more pictures with girls showing off their bloating or cellulite, or even how a certain post can make them look different instantly makes Izzy feel more encouraged to be herself. “I don’t blame them for just posting the posed and filtered pictures because Instagram is essentially a highlight reel.” Understanding and guilty of this ourselves to a smaller extent, we both agree it’s reassuring seeing the truthful, behind the scenes posts more often. “These posts definitely open up the discussion about body image and self-confidence.”
Although she tends to stick to her positive corner of Instagram, it makes girls like Izzy feel more ‘normal’ and supported when she sees pictures with stretch marks, and not left feeling she’s the only person who looks like that. Izzy has noticed more girls on Instagram becoming more candid with the way they look, conscious of the positive impact this can have on others. “I would love to see more posts from more influential people about mental health and body positivity.”
Knowing when a picture has been edited won’t stop comparisons. If we’re spending 30
minutes or more on Instagram, then follow the right people and those 30 minutes can boost your confidence and mood. The wave of body positivity sweeping Instagram is bringing more positive effects than the creators of the posts probably realise. It’s bringing friends, lifted spirits and confidence too. Body confidence issues won’t disappear, but at least we know who to not follow.