How Minimize Instagram's Harmful Effects?

More than a billion people use Instagram, spending an estimated average of 30 minutes per day on the image-heavy platform (eMarketer, 2020). But researchers know very little about how Instagram affects the mental health of its users.

Facebook’s internal studies, published by The Wall Street Journal in September, point to how the app may harm teens, including worsening body image concerns for 1 in 3 teenage girls, but that data is correlational and self-reported. The same is true for much of the research in the field, which is in its early stages but starting to accelerate, including experimental studies, longitudinal analyses, and fMRI efforts.

Instagram's Harmful Effects

“It’s quite hard to replicate the many different interactions between comments and likes, known and unknown people,” said Jasmine Fardouly, PhD, a psychology researcher who studies social media use and body image at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. “Everyone’s experience on Instagram is slightly different—and we’re only just starting to get at some of the nuances.”

Still, there is plenty of cause for concern. Studies have linked Instagram to depression, body image concerns, self-esteem issues, social anxiety, and other problems. By design, the app capitalizes on users’ biological drive for social belonging—and nudges them to keep on scrolling.

“There’s something about the interactions occurring on social media that makes them qualitatively different from in-person interactions,” some of which are intentionally part of the way apps are designed, said Mitch Prinstein, APA’s chief science officer. “This introduces risks that were not there before, which are causing harm as a result.”

How use affects mental health

Part of what makes Instagram problematic is its addictive nature. Unlike a magazine, television show, or video game, the platform rarely delivers “stopping cues”—or gentle nudges that prompt users to move on to a different activity, said psychologist Adam Alter, PhD, a professor of marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business. Instead, it continually serves up content, driving users back to the top of their feeds to repeat the descent.

“Instagram, like many tech platforms, is designed to be bottomless, and you don’t have to do much to access that bottomless content. Just keep scrolling,” he said.

Social interactions also play out in different ways, said Jacqueline Nesi, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at Brown University, because quantified measures of status—likes, views, and comments—tend to remain visible in perpetuity and can be viewed anytime, anywhere, and often by anyone (Psychological Inquiry, Vol. 21, No. 3, 2020).

Perhaps surprisingly, spending hours at a time on Instagram is not unilaterally harmful. One of the field’s most robust findings is that raw time spent on social media has little to no effect on psychopathology (Odgers, C. L., & Jensen, M. R., The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, Vol. 61, No. 3, 2020). Instead, the way people engage with the app appears to be what can impact mental health.

“Specific social media experiences are much more important than overall time spent on the platforms,” said Sophia Choukas-Bradley, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Delaware who studies adolescent mental health.

In particular, Instagram users who engage in digital status seeking (looking for popularity online) and social comparison (evaluating oneself in relation to others) tend to experience negative psychological outcomes. Such behaviors have been linked to increases in depressive symptoms, social anxiety, and body image concerns across age groups, as well as decreases in self-esteem (Sherlock, M., & Wagstaff, D. L., Psychology of Popular Media, Vol. 8, No. 4, 2019; Cohen, R., et al., Body Image, Vol. 23, 2017).

Upward social comparison in particular is extremely common on Instagram, said Fardouly. Users evaluate their own life alongside curated—and often edited—images of others (Body Image, Vol. 20, 2017). Because users tend to follow both people they know personally and people they’ve never met, the app also blurs the boundaries between peers and celebrities, Choukas-Bradley said. That can lead to false social comparison when users contrast their appearance with idealized images (PsyArXiv Preprints, 2021).

Posting edited “selfies” on apps like Instagram is also correlated with disordered eating behavior. In one study of 2,475 undergraduate students led by doctoral student Madeline Wick and her advisor, Pamela Keel, PhD, a psychology professor at Florida State University, 1 in 3 women said they edited images to alter their weight or shape before posting photos on Instagram. That practice was associated with an increased likelihood of a probable eating disorder. The study also found a causal relationship between posting edited photos and body image concerns (International Journal of Eating Disorders,Vol. 53, No. 6, 2020; Cohen, R., et al., Computers in Human Behavior, Vol. 79, 2018).

These behaviors tend to be more prevalent among younger users compared with older ones, and in women compared with men (Saiphoo, A. N., & Vahedi, Z., Computers in Human Behavior, Vol. 101, 2019; Body Image, Vol. 33, 2020). Though men and boys are less likely to use Instagram for social comparison and status seeking, those who do experience a similar level of harm to women and girls (Lonergan, A. R., et al., “Social media and eating and body image concerns among men and boys” in Eating Disorders in Boys and Men, 2021; International Journal of Eating Disorders,Vol. 53, No. 6, 2020).

The research is also clear that this is not just a problem for teens. Adults who use the app and are prone to social comparison consistently face problems with social anxiety, self-esteem, and mood (Jiang, S. & Ngien, A., Social Media + Society, Vol. 6, No. 2, 2020; Midgley, C., et al., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 121, No. 2, 2021).

While much of this data is correlational, researchers are starting to test Instagram use experimentally, said Sarah Diefenbach, a professor at the Ludwig-Maximilians University of Munich in Germany who holds a doctoral degree in psychology. For example, when participants in one study viewed either appearance-conscious photos from fitness, modeling, and beauty Instagram accounts or control photos from nature, food, and home-d├ęcor accounts, those in the former condition experienced increases in negative mood and anxiety (Kohler, M. T., et al., Psychology of Popular Media, Vol. 10, No. 3, 2021). Another experiment found that viewing retouched Instagram selfies, versus unedited ones, directly harmed body image in teenage girls (Kleemans, M., Media Psychology, Vol. 21, No. 1, 2018).

As those findings imply, Instagram users can attempt to curate their feeds to be less harmful, for instance by muting or unfollowing accounts that post idealized content and following those that promote diversity. In one experiment led by Fardouly and Rachel Cohen, PhD, a clinical psychologist based in Australia, women who viewed “body positive” posts—which promote acceptance of diverse body types—reported improved mood, body satisfaction, and body appreciation (New Media & Society, Vol. 21, No. 7, 2019). However, a content analysis of body positive accounts led by Jennifer Harriger, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Pepperdine University, found that 8% of posts still reinforced thin beauty ideals, for instance by encouraging dieting to change one’s appearance (Body Image, Vol. 34, 2020).

“The body positivity movement is a great example of a user-based initiative that leverages social media to promote diversity and effect positive change,” said Keel, a co-author on the content analysis. “But people still need to be critical consumers of what they’re viewing.”

Instagram in adolescence

As some of the most voracious users of image-heavy social media platforms, including Instagram, teens have been a major focus of research (Teens, Social Media & Technology 2018, Pew Research Center). Facebook’s internal studies of more than 22,000 users indicate that adolescents face challenges with social comparison, social pressure, and negative peer interactions on Instagram—and that “teens who struggle with mental health say Instagram makes it worse” (Hard Life Moments—Mental Health Deep Dive, Facebook, 2021).

Still, most teens report that social media makes them feel more connected to their friends, more included, and more confident, which suggests that online experiences are often multidimensional (Teens’ Social Media Habits and Experiences, Pew Research Center, 2018; Pouwels, J. L., et al., Developmental Psychology, Vol. 57, No. 2, 2021).

“Peer relationships are absolutely essential for kids’ well-being and social media use is now a primary source of those relationships,” Choukas-Bradley said. “It can present both risks and benefits at the same time.”

For example, transgender and gender diverse adolescents often use Instagram and other platforms to learn about sexual health and identity and to form community with other LGBTQ teens, according to research by Choukas-Bradley and her colleagues (Psychology of Sexual Orientation, 2021). Social media can be particularly important for LGBTQ teens in rural areas who may lack role models in their communities (Escobar-Viera, C. G., et al., JMIR Mental Health, Vol. 5, No. 3, 2018).

However, transgender and gender diverse teens also report being victimized on social media because of their gender identities—and teens who are bullied on social media report high levels of depression and suicidal thoughts and behaviors (Hamm, M. P., et al., JAMA Pediatrics, Vol. 169, No. 8, 2015; Nesi, J., et al., Clinical Psychology Review, Vol. 87, 2021). Researchers are also starting to document the interaction between online and offline bullying, especially for people of color, and are finding that teens who face offline racial discrimination are more likely to face online discrimination down the line (Lozada, F. T. , et al., Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, Vol. 27, No. 3, 2021).

Adolescents are both powerfully drawn to social media—and particularly vulnerable to it—partly because of their biological drive for popularity and connection, Prinstein said. Areas of the brain linked to social rewards develop a significant increase in dopamine and oxytocin receptors during adolescence, which motivates teens to seek approval from their peers—right around the same time many teens gain access to Instagram and other image-conscious apps.

“Kids have a biological vulnerability to want social rewards, and now we’re handing them a way to get it—on steroids,” he said.

That drive for approval bears out in experimental research, too. In a series of studies led by developmental psychologist Hae Yeon Lee, PhD, of Yale-NUS College in Singapore, teens who received fewer “likes” in a simulated social media interaction similar to Instagram reported more negative emotions and thoughts about themselves, especially if they were already victimized by peers at school (Child Development, Vol. 91, No. 6, 2020).

An fMRI study led by psychologist Lauren Sherman, PhD, also found that teens had increased activation in reward-associated regions of the brain when viewing Instagram-like photos with more “likes.” When viewing Instagram-like photos showing risky behaviors such as drinking and smoking, teens had decreased activation in areas of the brain linked to inhibition, including the prefrontal cortex (Psychological Science, Vol. 27, No. 7, 2016). (Sherman now works for Instagram, doing user experience research.)

The main takeaway from existing research, said Choukas-Bradley, is not to keep teens off Instagram and other social apps. Instead, it’s a more nuanced understanding that some behaviors that occur online, like social comparison, are harmful, while others, like intimacy and connection with peers, are a part of healthy and normative development.

“Our question now is: How can we decrease time spent on experiences that confer risk, and increase time spent on things we know to be protective?” she said.

Improving Instagram use

Unlike medications or cigarettes, social media platforms don’t come with warning labels, said Keel. But since Instagram’s internal research leaked to the public in September, there’s an increasing recognition that caution may be warranted when engaging with the platform. Alter recommends spending several hours at a time away from the app, either by leaving one’s phone in another room, activating airplane mode, or turning off notifications.

Concerned parents should avoid banning or overly restricting social media use among teens, Fardouly says, but instead have discussions with their children about harms and benefits. Start that discussion with open-ended questions, for example by asking kids how they feel when viewing different types of content and whether the images they see are real or edited. Encouraging critical thinking about material posted online can also help, because research suggests that kids and teens with strong media literacy skills struggle less with self-esteem and body image issues (Media Education and Body Image, Media Smarts, 2018).

“Adults can also model healthier behavior on Instagram by unfollowing people who post idealized content, following content unrelated to appearance, and spending less time on the app overall,” Fardouly said.

Future studies of Instagram should focus on testing Instagram’s effects on mental health experimentally and longitudinally, said Nesi. Researchers are now moving toward studying individual differences in usage and conducting experiments with more diverse samples, and away from questions about raw time spent on the app.

“We also need to develop constructs that allow us to understand how adolescents use social media more broadly, because their preferred platforms change so rapidly,” said Choukas-Bradley. Instagram has already lost traction with teens, who tend to prefer TikTok and Snapchat (Taking Stock with Teens, Piper Sandler, 2021).

Instagram and other platforms can bolster these efforts, researchers say, with more collaboration and data sharing. APA is engaged in advocacy efforts to increase transparency into the company’s massive internal datasets and to increase federal funding for studying the mental health effects of social media use.

“Different people use social media in very different ways,” Nesi said. “We need to understand what factors make some people more sensitive to experiences they have online—and how those experiences might impact psychological problems in the future.”

Further reading

Teens & Tech

Winston Family Initiative in Technology and Adolescent Brain Development, 2021

Irresistible: The rise of addictive technology and the business of keeping us hooked

Alter, A., Penguin Press, 2017

Plugged in: How media attract and affect youth

Valkenburg, P. M., & Piotrowski, J. T., Yale University Press, 2017


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