Instagram: I both love and loathe it for my mental health

Rachel talks us through why Instagram can be both good and bad for your mental health, and how to strike the balance to find healthy social media use that works for you.

We recently posted a question on #MHFQuestionTime: which Instagram accounts help you with your mental health?

People posted about accounts that help them feel connected to a social or cultural group, that are aligned to their hobbies and interests or that promote self-care, health and wellbeing. Some people said that Instagram does not help their mental health at all, and actually does the opposite.

Instagram is probably the only thing in my life that I love and hate in equal measure

For me personally, Instagram is probably the only thing in my life that I love and hate in equal measure. Part of me wishes it had never existed and the other part of me is really glad that it does. I think it’s important to consider the pros and cons to the app, because it is not helpful or accurate to condemn it as always damaging and detrimental. It’s really not that simple.

What’s important to recognise with social media, as with anything that can be considered a vice or an addiction, is that it is all about striking a healthy balance and making sure that our relationship is a positive one. Self-esteem, identity and self-worth are usually going to be linked in some way to our online presence.

Instagram: a brief history

When Instagram first started out it in 2010 it was a simple photography app. People didn’t really use it in the UK until about 2013. It was nice to have but by no means significant, and it didn’t take up much thought in people’s minds. You used it to share your edgy photo of a window, your unoriginal holiday sunset or your avocado and not much else.

You had followers, but these were just your close mates. You didn’t always get likes on your photos, but it didn’t matter because only 20 people saw it, including your tech savvy nan and that creepy person at school you hadn’t seen in years but who always fancied you a bit. And that was it. You could post the occasional selfie without worrying if it crashed and burned. Facebook still reigned supreme.

"What’s important to recognise with social media, as with anything that can be considered a vice or an addiction, is that it is all about striking a healthy balance and making sure that our relationship is a positive one"

In 2019, Instagram is like your cool CV

Fast forward nine years to 2019 and your Instagram account is like your cool CV. You’d think twice about posting your sunset or your avocado now because not only does tech savvy nan see it (and she always sees it) but so does everyone else. There’s a pressure to impress. Instagram’s reach is a lot wider, the celebrities, influencers and teenagers have taken over, and it is now a platform where everyone can try and turn themselves into a brand.

There are people who literally make a living out of being cool on Instagram. These are the people who dedicate their days to posting photos of themselves wearing, doing, eating the latest thing. Aspiring models, bloggers, fashionistas, yogis, musicians, entrepreneurs, wellbeing gurus, foodies and general trend setters.

Instagram is their business. They get paid to promote things and the amount of followers and likes they have does actually matter. So much so that it is now possible to buy Instagram followers and likes. It’s become more and more about you and your image. 

"It’s become more and more about you and your image."

Are influencers and celebrities setting a dangerous precedent on Instagram by placing so much emphasis on how attractive we look and how cool we are? Does the everyday person look at Kim Kardashian’s or Drake’s Instagram and feel inadequate about themselves as a result? We know that people’s mental wellbeing is linked closely to their body image and how they feel about their bodies, for one thing. We are often presented with idealistic, unrealistic, airbrushed images on the platform that may make us feel inadequate about ourselves.

So should we avoid social media at all costs?

Is Instagram just another thing that piles the social pressure onto people, especially young people, affects their confidence and self-worth, and is therefore unhealthy and to be avoided at all costs? Some might argue yes. But the facts are actually not pointing to an overall negative result.

The report Social Media, Social Life: Teens Reveal Their Experiences by Common Sense Media in 2018 found that among 11-17-year olds, only a few said using social media had a negative effect on how they feel about themselves:

  •  25% said that social media makes them feel less lonely
  • 18% say it makes them feel better about themselves
  • 16% said it makes them feel less depressed.
  • 46% of the most vulnerable teens, social media is ‘’very’’ or ‘’extremely’’ important in their lives.

Vulnerable teens were the group most likely to say they’ve had negative responses to social media, such as feeling bad about themselves when nobody comments or likes their posts. But they were also the group that reported that Instagram had the most positive effect on them. So why was this?

Instagram may help you to feel connected

For me the positive side of Instagram is about feeling connected. We want to feel connected. It makes us feel good about ourselves and our relationships. People want to share their experiences with others online, they want to feel part of a community. They want to keep up to date with their friends, especially in a busy world where we may not see someone in person for ages, or they may live far away.

We also want to feel distracted from the mundane and stressful realities of life. For the more vulnerable types - people who are lonely, shy, don’t feel they fit in, the online community can provide a lot of comfort and connect you with new groups of likeminded people. Having the ability to speak online is sometimes liberating for people who struggle to communicate face to face.

"Having the ability to speak online is sometimes liberating for people who struggle to communicate face to face."

But are we losing the ability to communicate properly in real life? We need to be careful to make sure we are being mindful of current experiences and conversations with others. I try and put my phone away when I’m hanging out with a friend, at a gig, having a meal etc, to make sure I am experiencing being in that moment as much as possible.

I think that whether our experience of social media is positive has a lot to do with how healthy our relationship to it is

I think that whether our experience of social media is positive has a lot to do with how healthy our relationship to it is. I have deleted Instagram off my phone on countless occasions because I have felt myself getting into a negative spiral on there – looking at things that make me feel bad about myself, spending too much time on it, checking likes. I’ve wanted to take back control of my life and spend time doing things that are meaningful and positive. 

But even though I loathe Instagram when I find myself mindlessly scrolling, there is a side to Instagram that I love. I am someone who enjoys sharing content with others. I love taking photos and capturing events. I like the way my profile is a visual trip down memory lane. I like looking back on what I was doing five years ago.

 "I like the way my profile is a visual trip down memory lane."

It can be a great place to share your creative side

I also have a desire to share my creative side. I struggle with stage-fright and self-doubt, so would never have the confidence to perform in front of an audience singing and playing the guitar. I actually froze when I had to do just that in a guitar show at school aged 14. But I can record myself and post it on Instagram from the comfort of my living room. The first time I did it I was scared, but I got a positive reaction and it encouraged me. Now I do it without giving it much thought.

I have found that using the platform for creative outlets is almost exclusively positive. People are supportive and enthusiastic. They inspire and empower each other. I now have a separate page just for my paintings. Instagram allows me to do this. It gives you direct access, via hashtags, to the exact audience you want to target, which is amazing. It is something that I’m sure other introverted creatives, who may also be struggling with their mental health and need an outlet, would really value.

"I have found that using the platform for creative outlets is almost exclusively positive. People are supportive and enthusiastic."

When Instragram can become unhealthy

I think that if our relationship with ourselves is negative then Instagram can unfortunately exacerbate this. If we don’t have a strong sense of self, then we can concentrate too much on how popular, attractive or successful we come across on social media. We have not learnt to be happy with ourselves, the way we are, without seeking validation from a platform that is not real life, but superficial. People can easily feel rejected, unhappy or jealous on Instagram.

We can use it in a toxic way if we’re not careful – unhealthily stalking others (exes, ghosters, arch nemeses) comparing yourself to others (better looking, funnier, cooler friends) and generally not living life in the moment.

When Instagram can be empowering and inspiring

Instagram can be empowering and inspiring if you let it be. Some influencers have accounts that are aimed at inspiring people and promoting positivity and wellbeing. Not everyone is a narcissist. I only follow people and things that are positive and helpful in my life. I follow my favourite bands, organisations, influential people I admire, people who inspire me to be better and my best friends.

So, I would urge others to do the same and fill their newsfeed with things that boost them up and don’t drag them down. If you have a problem with your body image, then do not follow models who have unrealistic bodies, who are posting heavily edited photos of themselves. Remember this isn’t real life, it’s an idealised life. Also remember that people never post their bad moments on Instagram (crying in the bath with a glass of wine) – only their happy, attractive sides (got a new haircut, look how great it is).

Tips for healthy social media use

The Mental Health Foundation have some tips for healthy social media use:

  • One is making sure you don’t overuse. Put your phone in a drawer at work, in the evening, or whenever you feel like you need a break.
  • Engage with the real world and don’t use it late at night as it will interfere with your sleep.
  • Use the app actively and not passively. Comment and engage positively with posts.
  • Don’t just scroll mindlessly through your feed when you’re already fed up on the commute home. You’ll feel worse.
  • Also break the ‘filter bubbles.’ Companies that promote on Instagram use algorithms to show you something similar to what you’ve seen before. If this is negative content, then break the cycle by searching for new things.

"I don’t think it’s helpful to just condemn Instagram as completely bad"

I don’t think it’s helpful to just condemn Instagram as completely bad, and I won’t be getting rid of it anytime soon (well I might for a day but then I’ll probably download it again). However, I think we all need to exercise caution on the app. Only follow people that you care about and who care about you.

For Instagram to work for you, you need to feel empowered by it, not overwhelmed by it. Be selective in who and what you interact with on there, and as a result your experience will be positive. 

Links to mental health Instagram accounts that have helped you:

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