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Why Instagram makes you feel bad

Instagram. Everybody’s on it. You, Me, Celebrities, Kid, Mams, Dads, Teachers, Dentists, Politicians and Priests (the cool ones, anyway). Everyone. All fending for ourselves on this huge, weird acreage of cyberspace. Hundreds of millions of lives captured and shared, all existing alongside one another, separated only by a few taps and scrolls on a screen. I don’t feel like we need to hear much more about how weird of a concept this is; the entire spiel has been done to death at this stage – lads thinking they’re saying something revolutionary by preaching about the unnatural human existence of the “social media generation”. Instagram, like all forms of social media, is a very new and very weird human phenomenon – we get it. But what I don’t think we understand fully is just how harmful these new methods of social interaction can be. Social media is great in many ways, and I’m not one of those people who suggests that the answer to all of life’s troubles lies in regressing to Stone Age methods of communication such as writing letters and physically talking to people. However, social media definitely comes with a lot of drawbacks, and Instagram can be a particularly toxic and damaging place for all of us if we’re not careful.

A 2017 survey by the UK Royal Society for Public Health found that Instagram is the most harmful social media platform we use today. The survey was carried out on over 1,500 young people (aged 14-24), and asked them a set of “health & wellbeing” orientated questions on each popular social media platform. They were asked to rate how each platform made them feel in terms of “loneliness”, “body image”, “self-expression”, and a host of other factors. Out of the 5 social media platforms studied (Instagram, Twitter, Youtube, Snapchat and Facebook), Instagram was found to have the worst impact on the health and wellbeing of its users. This is probably unsurprising to most of you, considering that Instagram has become synonymous with feelings of low self-esteem and depression recently. It’s rare to scroll through your Twitter timeline without seeing somebody (young women in particular) expressing how they are “depressed” by the seemingly perfect people they see plastered all over their Instagram feed. It seems that everyone on Instagram is fitter, cooler and a whole lot happier than you could ever be – no wonder it makes us feel like shit. We constantly compare ourselves to these people, and wonder what we’re doing wrong. However, it’s so important to remember that what people post on Instagram is not a representation of their reality. It seems obvious to say, but it’s easy for us to forget that these “perfect” people are nothing more than just people – as messy and flawed as the rest of us. Their “perfect” selfies are the one success plucked from a thousand failed attempts; Their captions pored over and edited to a degree that’s just sad. It’s pure Hollywood plastic, but it somehow has us all fooled.

So, if Instagram really is such an unpleasant environment for its users, then why do we all continue to use it? The obvious answer is that human beings enjoy sharing their pictures with others. People enjoy keeping up to date with their friends’ lives, seeing what their favourite celebrities are up to, and, of course, sharing their own favourite images with the world. This all probably sounds a little bit too wholesome to be the real reason why we all use Instagram; and that’s because it is. Our relationship with Instagram is a lot more malignant in nature than it may seem – less of a sweet high school romance, and more of an unhealthy “off and on” relationship, held together only by a surprisingly strong adhesive of really good sex. In other words, our infatuation with Instagram is based solely on short-term pleasure, rather than anything enduring or valuable. These feelings of pleasure are caused by dopamine; a neurochemical which is released by the brain in a variety of everyday situations, from having sex, to snorting a line of cocaine, to receiving a ‘like’ on Instagram. However, dopamine is not simply a ‘pleasure molecule’ as it is so often thought. Dopamine is actually released during the anticipation of something good happening, not during the event itself. According to an article published by “Psychology Today”, Dopamine is more about “desire” than pleasure. The article states that dopamine is released in our brains “when a cue from the environment indicates that you’re going to get a reward” – when you publish a picture on Instagram and sit there waiting for those likes to start rolling in, for example. On a primitive level, dopamine’s job is to teach us that something feels good, so that we will know to do it again. This can be a bit dodgy when it comes to social media platforms like Instagram, as it’s so easy for us to become hooked on the feelings of pleasure and validation that we experience when we receive likes on Instagram.

I realise I’m not saying anything groundbreaking here, and the vast majority of people are already aware that Instagram isn’t exactly a Utopian environment. Nevertheless, it’s definitely important to remind ourselves that, despite their seemingly artificial nature, social media platforms such as Instagram can do a lot of real damage.