Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

A balancing act: striving for Instagram likes and liking yourself

When Instagram launched in 2010, no-one knew just how big of an impact it would have on the world. With over 1 billion monthly users, the app has become an unavoidable part of life, particularly for younger generations.

Though Instagram is often dismissed as a platform of superficiality and little substance, its merits in our modern world are becoming increasingly apparent, with companies and businesses moving to the app and a great deal of important activism and information circulating on it. What’s more, it’s not going away any time soon.

In a world where abstaining from social media is out of the ordinary, how much should we be following blindly as it claims more and more of our time? As we move towards a more social media-oriented future, more attention is owed to the way it’s impacting our relationships with others and with ourselves.

If you post a photo of yourself, and you get likes and comments from followers this will serve as a form of validation

A new study published this July by Charles Stuart University aims to fill in some of the gaps that other studies have left behind. Previously, data has offered conflicting evidence on Instagram user well-being, but this study takes a closer look into the reasons behind these discrepancies in user experience.

Crucially, it reveals that posting photos of yourself and receiving positive social rewards for them, in the form of likes and comments from friends, will elevate user well-being. This seems to make sense: if you post a photo of yourself, and you get likes and comments from followers, this will serve as a form of validation that is easy to access and instantaneous.

Though Dazed posted an article on the report titled ‘Sharing selfies on Instagram makes you happier, says study’, the lessons to draw from it seem less straight-forward. The report argues that this data on the positive impacts on well-being of social rewards should be used by Instagram to enhance user experience. What it doesn’t do (and to be fair, isn’t trying to do) is account for the way that we use the app as a whole.

It perpetuates the idea that other people’s lives are more fun, more fulfilling and more successful

Too much dependency on the app can be bad for users. Craving social recognition and rewards from posts can quickly turn sour as it doesn’t equate real interactions with others, and it can’t totally overrule feelings and beliefs about yourself outside of the app.

A message I saw circling around Tumblr back in 2014 was one urging people not to compare their own behind the scenes to the showreels of others. This feels relevant now more than ever. While posting pictures of yourself at your best can provide a short-term high from the reception that it may get, it doesn’t help us to be more accepting or caring towards ourselves at our low points.

If everyone is posting pictures of their ‘showreels’, far from elevating our sense of selves, it perpetuates the idea that other people’s lives are more fun, more fulfilling and more successful than our own.

We are far from a world where the only kind of attention a person can receive is positive

This is not to say that we should feel guilty about posting the version of ourselves that we want others to see, but it is interesting that more and more accounts at influencer level are posting photos of themselves from ‘behind the scenes’ perspectives, with more honest captions. If we want to encourage an Instagram where better well-being is the goal, should we really be beginning by promoting the idea that more selfies will equal more positive attention, in turn equalling greater happiness?

Further proof that high numbers of followers and staggering numbers of likes on photos isn’t the key to a blissful existence is the treatment of celebrities online. From influencers to activists, we are far from a world where the only kind of attention a person can receive is positive. Two recent examples that come to mind are that of Molly-Mae Hague, 21-year-old ex-Love Island contestant, and Munroe Bergdorf, a 32-year-old model and social activist.

Hague has shared comments she received from strangers online, calling her names like “fat cow”, and she claims that she receives messages of this variety so frequently that she’s become “desensitised” to the hate. In a similar, but frequently more insidious way, Bergdorf is continually attacked and sent lewd messages for being trans and for her activism, sharing one in particular where she was sent an image of a noose.

There is a definite danger in the way that people are placed on pedestals

There is a definite danger in the way that people are placed on pedestals on the app, but also in the way that they are so highly scrutinised. While the average user will have far fewer followers, the majority of whom they will know personally, an element of the same vulnerability exists. Along with posting photos of yourself and receiving positive comments and likes, this can frequently come with other people’s negative judgements or, more likely, anxiety around the judgements that others may have.

Though Instagram was set up initially as a platform for sharing in-the-moment-pics of restaurant dishes and visually appealing views, does the app have a higher duty to protect their users today? If so, will introducing a feature that elevates the number of likes a person gets on their photos, encouraging higher rates of social interactions online, really help this or perpetuate the more negative patterns?

Reports like this one do help us to better understand our psychology in relation to Instagram, offering opportunities for us to critique the way that we use it. Perhaps some positive changes we can make as users are following a wider variety of accounts, broadening the kinds of ‘showreels’ that we see, and challenging the reasons behind our own posts, and what versions of ourselves we’re happy for our followers to see.

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