Huber: Instagram isn’t a picture-perfect social media platform

Allie Huber

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by The Collegian or its editorial board.

More than 98% of college-aged students are social media users. United States teenagers spend about seven hours a day using screens, not including time spent doing homework online. I know I’m constantly plugged in. I also know that I’m planning a trip to the beach for spring break, and I’ve already been thinking about what to post on Instagram.

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Every time I go on a trip, I find myself thinking about posting on social media, but before I post, I find myself hesitating because I’m not sure my post will be good enough. As Danielle Leigh Wagstaff, author of a research study regarding the psychological effects of Instagram, said, “People tend to post only their best images on Instagram, using filters that make them look beautiful. We have a false sense of what the average is, which makes us feel worse about ourselves.”

Yet social media is a key part of our lives, largely due to its addictive properties.

New York University professor Adam Alter claims that social media likes stimulate the release of dopamine, a chemical associated with happiness, but the real source of addiction is the uncertainty of a positive response to our posts. As Alter puts it, “It’s the unpredictability of that process that makes it so addictive. If you knew that every time you posted something you’d get a 100 likes, it would become boring really fast.”

This source of validation and associated dopamine rush really helped social media platforms take off in the early 2000s, when MySpace became the first site to reach a million active users. 

According to a survey performed by the Royal Society for Public Health, Instagram is one of the two worst social media sites — the other being Snapchat — for users’ mental health.”

Clearly, MySpace isn’t the site of choice for most people anymore, but social media has become ingrained in our society. More recently in 2018, the top three most widely used platforms were Facebook, YouTube and Instagram, with 2.26 billion, 1.9 billion and 1 billion users, respectively.

Instagram has always been one of my personal favorite social media sites — it’s easy to log on and see what my friends are up to, especially because I don’t have to wade through large blocks of text. But I also often find myself comparing my posts to those I follow, and I’m not the only one who feels this way.

According to a survey performed by the Royal Society for Public Health, Instagram is one of the two worst social media sites — the other being Snapchat — for users’ mental health. The survey investigated 14 different categories of health and well-being, including anxiety, depression, loneliness and body image.

Shirley Cramer from the RSPH indicated that the findings regarding Instagram and Snapchat having the worst effects on users’ mental health was interesting, as “both platforms are very image-focused, and it appears they may be driving feelings of inadequacy and anxiety in young people.”

 
 
 
 
 
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Morning, State 🌅 Only 4️⃣ days until Spring Break.

A post shared by Colorado State University (@coloradostateuniversity) on

On a similar note, Wagstaff claims that Instagram confuses one’s comparison mechanism, used to determine social standing, because images posted aren’t usually accurate representations of reality and cause unfair comparisons. Wagstaff suggests that one way to combat this is through following accounts that reflect our own lives, such as those of our friends.

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Their hypothesis is supported by other studies, one of which found that “fitspiration” posts — or images that promote a healthy lifestyle and diet but largely portray thin women — tend to cause the viewer to experience negative thoughts about their body.

These “fitspiration” posts are something that I have struggled with a lot in the past, especially because I know that my spring break posts won’t be up to par in my own eyes.

It helps me to recognize that these thoughts aren’t unique to me, and as the conversation about mental health and social media has grown, the platforms are starting to adjust.

Both Instagram and Facebook offer a setting that allows users to see how long they’ve spent on the platform and reminds them to disconnect. If you’re concerned with the amount of time you’re spending on social media, this is definitely something to look into.

If you find yourself using social media as a comparison tool, it’s important to remind yourself that social media is a great tool for staying up-to-date on your friends’ lives, but it isn’t always an accurate representation of reality.

Take a step back if you need to, and if you’re really struggling, talk to someone; Colorado State University offers mental health services. As health YouTuber Laci Green put it, “Socializing from behind a screen can also be uniquely isolating, obscuring mental health challenges even more than usual.”

With apps like Instagram, which allow us to post the very best snapshots of our lives for others to see and envy, this is especially true. I definitely agree with Green when she says, “As we navigate these new digital spaces that have so much to offer, we must be having a conversation about how it can affect our mental health.”

Allie Huber can be reached at letters@collegian.com or on Twitter @a11iehuber.