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I started using Instagram in early 2014. Back then, though it had been founded some years before – in October 2010, to be exact – it’s fair to say that it wasn’t nearly as popular as it is now. I used the app to crop and edit my photos, and didn’t really think much about “curating” what I was sharing.
Fast forward to the end of 2018, and I’ve organically grown a following of around 1,500. Not that impressive, I know. I don’t have a blue star, but then again, I don’t have an agenda either. Instagram has millions of users who accept payments for plugs and mentions, hashtag #Ad, and have to post several times a day to meet the requirements of a contract they’ve signed with a company. And while I never fitted into that crowd, I did use the app everyday. I posted photos, comments, and liked lots of posts.
Every. Single. Day.
Selfies, flatlays, where I stand, what’s on my plate… whether you love fashion, want to share a message, or just have a penchant for tiled floors, Instagram has a hashtag – and a community – for you. It helps many people to feel known, heard, and accepted. It brings people with the same interests together in one place, even if they’ve never met before and live thousands of miles apart. But while there’s an awful lot of great and stuff on Instagram, there’s also a lot of pointlessness, a lot of nastiness, and a great deal of comparison.
Fed up with my post-it-all ways, my husband challenged me to stop using Instagram. Whether it’s a permanent break or a short detox, here’s why you should too…
1. It’s Stopping You From Living Your Best (Real) Life
This might sound like it’s farfetched, but I assure you – it isn’t. Have you ever done, seen, or photographed anything especially #forthegram? If you answered yes, then don’t worry, you aren’t alone. There are literally thousands of blog posts and articles online about the things you ‘must do’ to use Instagram successfully, and they are actively encouraging this kind of performative behavior. They are also advocating the use – or more accurately, the overuse – of social media to the exclusion of everything else.
If you’re using Instagram for business, following all of the online advice makes sense. But for the rest of us – and we are the majority – implementing these techniques or learning to use the app as a tool is really unnecessary. According to WordStream statistics from 2018, there are over 500 million active accounts per day, posting more than 95 million photos and videos. Half of us follow at least one business, and over 70% of companies in the US will use Instagram this year as a method of promotion. The reason they do so is because they know that they can rely on the repeated exposure and recommendations from ‘influencers’ that Instagram provides.
While businesses want to use Instagram carefully and successfully to represent their brand, the rest of us should never be made to feel that our worth or success is contingent on our use of social media or the number of people who follow us. We should also live our lives for ourselves and not fall in the trap of planning activities so we can Instagram them and get attention or social validation.
Though we can all laugh at viral videos of Instagram husbands, the reality is this: if our enjoyment of activities, travel, or day-to-day life is only worth something if we are posting it on Instagram, or our relationships are only worthwhile if they are helping us to create an online presence… then are we really living our best life?
It’s easy to create a separate and different persona on social media — we hear about the dangers of it happening all of the time — but it’s time we recognized that the very process of doing so stops us from enjoying life, just as it is. Stepping away from Instagram, even if it’s just for a month or so, can help you reset and refocus your priorities. When you don’t feel the pressure to impress, instruct, or keep up with other people, you can focus on doing the things that you really enjoy — without documenting them.
You can be in the moment, knowing that real life isn’t what is on your phone screen, it’s what is happening right in front of you. When you don’t have to share what is happening during your day on Stories, you are able to to devote your full time and attention to your relationships — without the expectation that the other person cares as much about your photo-perfect, post-making, incessant-scrolling ways as you do.
2. Comparison is the Thief of Joy
The boom in social media — and especially of Instagram — has opened up a distinct new field for psychologists. Graham C.L. Davey, Ph.D is one such specialist who has written extensively on Why We Worry and the role of social media in feelings of loneliness and anxiety among young people.
Though social media was created to facilitate connections with other people, it seems that for many people, what’s happening is actually the reverse. Rather than feelings of connectedness with old friends and new people, social networking sites like Facebook and Instagram are actually causing loneliness, disconnection, and anxiety. “Loneliness appears to have a reciprocal relationship with social anxiety, that is, an excessive and unreasonable fear of social situations,” Davey tells us. “Social anxiety is known to facilitate loneliness; but loneliness also increases social anxiety and feelings of paranoia, and this may represent a cyclical process that is especially active in the young and in our modern times may be mediated by the use of social media.”
Social Media and Loneliness
Loneliness increases as the number of perceived friendships decreases. And sadly, today’s social media mindset focuses as much — if not considerably more — on online friendships as it does on real life ones. A study of social isolation in America by Miller McPherson found that, between 1984 and 2005, the mean number of confidants a person had decreased from 2.94 to 2.08. That’s a significant drop in “real friends” at a time when online networks were really just beginning to grow. In 2019, rather than getting out there to seek real friends, we are increasingly using social media sites like Instagram as a surrogate for connectedness, and as a consequence our connections grow broader but shallower.
Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter are all significant contributors to the friendship networks of young people, and how successful we perceive ourselves to be on social media can have a huge impact on our mental health. They, writes Davey, “add a new dimension to loneliness and anxiety by offering the young person a way of directly quantifying friendships, viewing the friendship networks of others for comparison, and providing immediate information about social events.” Social media has given us FOMO — “the fear of missing out” — which adds fuel to the fire of loneliness, anxiety, alienation, and paranoia.
Comparison and Depression
But it isn’t just young people who are feeling a detrimental impact on their mental health as a result of using social media. We all fall victim to what is known as Social Comparison Theory, the human propensity to constantly evaluate ourselves and others “across a variety of domains, such as attractiveness, wealth, intelligence, and success.” Instagram actively fuels this kind of behavior, because it enables us to compare ourselves — and our outfits, our living space, our careers, and our diets — with dozens of other people in the very same moment. We become so curious about what we’re missing out on and what everyone else is doing or looking like that we begin to neglect, or even attack, ourselves in response.
Smiling Depression is the term that has come to be associated with the negative impact of this comparative, social media-driven mentality. It is used to describe people who are depressed but do not outwardly appear to be, and is the kind of depression that is fuelled by the constant comparisons we are confronted with when we look at other people’s lives and think that they are better than our own. Steve Furtick relates this back directly to Social Comparison Theory when he says: “the reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.”
Comparison is indeed the thief of joy, because it robs us of any security we might feel in who we are and what we do. Social media isn’t real, and it isn’t showing us the whole picture. When we compare ourselves to the perfectly filtered and heavily edited lives we see on our small screens, we inevitably set ourselves up to fail. But that comparison doesn’t make us happy – and as we are finding out, it doesn’t make us healthy either. In some cases, it can even be a tool for manipulation and deception.
3. It’s an Addiction and it’s bad for your health
If you asked anyone in the street to define what it means to have an addiction, I think they’d come up with some or all of the following:
– powerful cravings
– inability to control the use of a specific substance, despite awareness of its harmfulness
– obsession and obsessive behavior
– secrecy and denial
– deteriorating health
We’re so used to thinking about addiction in terms of substances – like drugs and alcohol – that we often fail to see patterns of addictive behavior elsewhere. Dr. Davey tells us that using social media actually activates the same areas of the brain as addictive drugs like cocaine, meaning it is pretty inevitable that it, too, can become an addiction for some people. Feelings of social anxiety and the need for social reassurance are fueled by the use of Instagram and Facebook, which in turn becomes an “addiction [that] poses a threat to physical and psychological well-being and interferes with performance at school or work.” Seeing spending time away from Instagram or any other form of social media as an act of self-sacrifice or “detoxification” is also a sign of this kind of thinking, and can cause further stress and anxiety.
Social Media Stress
A study of 1,839 students at the Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania found that the time they spent on Facebook had a strong and significantly negative impact on their overall grade point average (GPA). Other studies at Regis University in Colorado linked social media-induced stress to physical health problems like respiratory infections. It also concluded that the bigger your social network – ie. the larger the number of followers, and the more engagement is required – the higher the levels of stress it causes. This suggests that although feelings of social anxiety, paranoia, loneliness are prevalent among those who feel they are using social media unsuccessfully, those with large social networks equally struggle with higher cortisol levels, chronic stress, burnout, and depression.
If you check in with social media first thing in the morning and last thing at night, you aren’t alone. Unfortunately, though, this is another sign of addiction — and it goes right alongside the fear of not being able to access or use it. The immediacy of being able to see what other people are doing, wearing, saying, or eating is one of things we love most about Instagram, but these constant updates “can turn a mere interest in social networks into an unhealthy, stressful compulsion that not only affects stress levels, but leads to feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem.” Recent complaints about Instagram have also highlighted just how dangerous it can be for physical and mental health, as the availability of graphic self-harm material on the app was linked closely to the suicide of British teen Molly Russell.
Empowering though it may feel to grow your social network, the very process of doing it is actually harmful – harmful to your physical health, your mental wellbeing, and your performance.
Some final thoughts…
When I quit using Instagram altogether — and I honestly still don’t know how long that will be for — I hadn’t done the research for this article yet. But now I have, I’m glad I put a stop to my scrolling, double-tapping ways. Life should be about doing the things that make you happy with the people you love, not about taking photos to share with people you’ve never met and probably never will. Your health is more important than your social network, whether you struggle with social anxiety, depression, or just can’t seem to shake that head cold. Switch off, take time to look after yourself, and focus on living your best life. If your Instagram friends don’t understand that – well, don’t worry, because maybe they weren’t really your friends anyway.
It’s time that we stopped letting comparison steal our joy, and screens be our surrogate for real interaction. Put down the phone. The real world is waiting.