June 11, 2021

The Effects of Instagram on Mental Health

Ivan Alsina Jurnet
The Effects of Instagram on Mental Health

Instagram has become one of the most used social media applications worldwide, with more than 1 billion users in 2020. Although Instagram can help people connect and interact with others, its inappropriate use can also have a negative impact on mental health.

A recent survey of almost 1,500 teens and young adults, revealed that participants rated Instagram as the worst social media network for their mental health and wellbeing (RSPH, 2017). It is possible that the positivity of Instagram is the main problem, with its emphasis on promoting ideal and sometimes unrealistic lifestyles. Instagram depicts perfect lives, events, and bodies that are not attainable for the majority of people. This data is relevant because 70% of Instagram users are under the age of 35 (Statista, 2021).

As an image-focused platform, the use of Instagram is usually reserved for the distribution of rich visual content such as photographs and short videos. Instagram is also well-known for its utilization of photo-enhancing filters and for enabling users to edit visual content before uploading it. Those filters allow Instagram users to be more visually appealing in their socio-cultural context. Similar to Facebook, Instagram endorses taking and sharing selfies. Recent research shows that selfies are becoming increasingly popular, representing one third of the pictures taken (McCrory et al., 2020); and authors like Srivastava et al. (2018) attribute this popularity to the need for social approval and positive affirmation. It is also important to mention that Instagram includes “stories,” encouraging users to share additional moments from their daily lives (Constine, 2018). These stories show the users’ personal and intimate lives in more detail than most traditional posts, increasing the time and efforts that users dedicate to Instagram. 

It is plausible that these features encourage users to engage in excessive social comparison, which can lead to negative outcomes (Lup et al., 2015). Despite research about the mental health and wellbeing impact of Instagram still being in its infancy (McCrory et al., 2020), the negative effects of Instagram's excessive use are starting to be well documented:

1) Body image dissatisfaction and disordered eating behaviours

Several studies have shown that the overall time spent in Instagram is associated with disordered eating symptoms (Fardourly et al., 2020; Haller 2021; Saunders & Eaton, 2018), which can be related to the users’ efforts to attain a thin-ideal. Those symptoms can include fasting, persistent dieting, calorie counting, eating in secret, binge eating, vomiting and laxative use, among others. McLaughlin (2017) suggested that disordered eating is usually associated with an internalization of a thin-ideal and body dissatisfaction. 

Specifically, some researchers have found evidence of a close relationship between the use of Instagram and body image dissatisfaction in adolescents (Kleemans et al, 2018), college students (Hooper, 2017), and adults (Haller, 2021; Sherlock & Wagstaff, 2019). In particular, Fardourly et al. (2020) found that a higher frequency of appearance comparisons with others (and considering them more attractive than oneself) is strongly linked with body image dissatisfaction and eating-related disorders in both male and female teenagers.

Similarly, Marengo et al. (2018) observed that persons who use visual social media (like Instagram) expressed significantly greater dissatisfaction with their body image and higher emotional symptoms. Turner and Lefevre (2017) found that participants who followed healthy eating accounts on Instagram can have a tendency to develop orthorexia nervosa, an obsession with healthy eating. Finally, Brown and Tiggemann (2016) found that exposing women to celebrity and peer images on Instagram increased body dissatisfaction and negative mood, mediated again by appearance comparisons. 

Taken together, those findings point towards the negative impact of Instagram on users’ (especially women’s) perceptions of their bodies and, more broadly, how they feel. As suggested by Tiggemann and Zaccardo (2016), exposure to images of thin, idealized bodies can impact one's body image, so the overrepresentation of these body stereotypes on Instagram can have serious negative effects.

2) Depressive symptoms

Depression is a prevalent mood disorder characterized by a persistent sadness, loss of interest in activities one previously enjoyed, and the inability to carry out daily life activities. 

Some studies suggest that the use of Instagram could aggravate those depressive symptoms. Passive social media use, like browsing others’ photos or scrolling down through comments or pictures has been linked to a depressive mood (Cataldo et al., 2021). For instance, a recent study revealed that the use of Instagram can increase depressive symptoms in 18-29 year old young adults (Frison & Eggermont, 2015). The same authors, using a stronger methodology, found that former browsing behavior in Instagram is related to a later increase in depressed mood (Frison & Eggermont, 2017). 

Lup et al. (2015) also found that the frequency of Instagram usage was associated with depressive symptoms and more frequent negative social comparisons. Those results revealed that the relation between the use of Instagram and the increase of depressive symptomatology can be mediated by social comparison. Interestingly, it has been found that at the highest levels of strangers followed, more frequent Instagram use had direct associations with greater depressive symptoms.

Finally, note that the frequency of Instagram usage has been directly associated with depressive symptoms in women aged between 18-35 years old (Sherlock & Wagstaff, 2019) and in adolescents (Yurdagül et al., 2019).

3) Anxiety

Anxiety-related symptoms usually overlap with depression, especially in youths. In social media in general, and in particular Instagram, anxiety can arise from being constantly connected, from a negative comparison with another person, or from reduced emotion-regulation abilities (Cataldo et al., 2021). In fact, Instagram features, such as seeking online approval through the number of likes, or retaining the visibility of pictures that received positive feedback, can elicit excessive social comparison and rumination behaviors, increasing the levels of pre-existing anxiety.

With regards to Instagram, one study reported that the frequency of its usage can be related to the levels of anxiety in women aged between 18-35 years old (Sherlock & Wagstaff, 2019). In a second study, a direct association has been found between Instagram usage and anxiety in boys, while in girls this association was mediated by body image dissatisfaction (Yurdagül et al., 2019). Finally, a recent study has found that social anxiety in young users is associated with the attitude of comparing one's appearance with other people’s pictures on Youtube, Snapchat, and Instagram (Fardourly et al., 2020).

4) Other consequences

Despite the research about the effects of Instagram still being in its infancy, recent studies have shown that limiting the use of Instagram increases well-being by increasing sleep quality (Graham et al., 2020). The frequency of Instagram usage has also been related to a decreased self-esteem in women aged between 18-35 years old (Sherlock & Wagstaff, 2019).

Taken together, those studies show that psychological and psychiatric problems can be associated with a problematic usage of Instagram. However, some authors have also found that a correct and rational use of Instagram can have positive mental health outcomes. It is considered that the use of social media platforms like Facebook may result in social benefits, such as increased perception of aid and social support from others (Li et al., 2015), relational closeness (Vitak, 2012), and social capital (Aubrey & Rill, 2013) that is linked to benefits from interpersonal relationships and groups a person belongs to. In particular, regarding Instagram, Brailovskaia & Margraf (2018) found an association between Instagram membership and social support, extroversion, and life-satisfaction. In a similar way, Yang (2016) found that browsing on Instagram is associated with lower loneliness among undergraduate students.

Given this context, some recommendations are needed to take into consideration, for a correct use of Instagram. Recognized psychologists like Jelena Kecmanovic (expert in Cognitive Behavior Therapy) or UNICEF identified some tips that you must take into consideration:

1. Limit when and where you use Instagram. Limiting Instagram usage results in significant reductions in the levels of anxiety, depression, and sleep problems. It is recommendable to turn off the notifications or to put the phone in airplane mode during meals with family and friends, when walking with a partner or playing with children, or when having a meeting at the workplace. Don’t keep your phone in the bedroom because it would have a negative influence on your sleep quality.

2. Take regular breaks and plan “detox” periods. Schedule regular multi-day breaks from Instagram. During some weeks, it is recommendable to limit use to 10 minutes per day. You can use the option “Set a daily reminder” to set a limit on how much you spend on Instagram.

3. Avoid doomscrolling. Instead of scrolling through the feed, pay attention to how Instagram is influencing your emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. How does it make you feel? Does seeing photos of your friends at a party make you feel good or envious? Do you notice that you get a craving to look at Instagram when you are trying to concentrate? Think about why you are using it, how do you feel, and whether that’s really what you want. You may notice that a few short minutes of usage helps you feel better than spending 45-60 minutes exhaustively scrolling through the feed.

4. Approach Instagram mindfully; ask ‘why?’ If you look at Instagram as the first thing in the morning, think about what is the main reason for this behavior. Is it maybe a habit that serves as an avoidance to the day that is coming? Do you notice that you get a craving to look at Instagram when you are trying to be concentrated at the workplace? Be clear and brave with yourself. Everytime you check Instagram ask the question: Why am I doing it?

5. Choose Kindness. Use Instagram for good purposes, by sharing positive and supportive content, pictures, and messages. Some studies have recently shown that this kind of content and interactions can have positive effects on the users’ mental health and wellbeing. Thus, you can share some positive feedback on a photo that a friend shared. In addition, if you see or receive messages or content you consider to be bullying or abusive, you can block and report it.

6. Prune. Try to unfollow Instagram friends or companies that are not interesting for you. Studies suggest that the number of contacts in social networks can increase the levels of anxiety and stress.

7. Stop social media from replacing real life. Make sure that the digital interactions don’t become a substitute for face-to-face interactions.


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