Last year, after conducting some research for my Psychology class entitled “The Self in the Age of Instagram”, I took about three months off social media. The research correlated deteriorating mental health with the widely used photo-sharing app, and the key concept explored was that of the “looking-glass self”, which is a behaviour that uses the perception of others as a mirror to understand how to view oneself. This has extraordinary implications regarding fluctuations of self esteem. To examine whether mental health can be talked about on Instagram, it is necessary to establish a clear understanding of the link between Instagram usage and mental health. An interesting idea which can be applied to millennials in the age of Instagram was expressed by the famous sociologist, C.H. Cooley: “We are not what we think we are, we are not what others think we are; we are what we think others think we are.”
Instagram provides a digital space of surveillance and exhibition. We use it to watch others and to feel seen in a way that we can control. We exhibit instances of controlled and curated performances for our followers to see. This creates an illusion of participation and abundance. We feel as though we belong to something larger than ourselves, to a big community that regularly interacts with us and provides us with feedback.
“It takes time to realise how physically isolated we are, with no real relationships to count on – at least, none that go beyond a double tap and a comment, or a quick DM reply to a story.”
The limitless nature of the platform enables this illusion. It takes time to realise how physically isolated we are, with only a few real relationships to count on that go beyond a double tap and a comment, or a quick DM reply to a story. An Instagram celebrity blogger, Essena O’Neill, uploaded an intensely emotional video of herself breaking down while talking about her realisations regarding all the time she wasted acquiring a huge fan base, while simultaneously missing out on real human connection and physical contact. She was denouncing social media through the medium of social media. This illustrates some of the inherent contradictions of social media.
“Instagram is a digital space that is often guilty of manufacturing realities that have a profound impact on mental health.”
Instagram is a digital space that is often guilty of manufacturing realities that go on to have a profound impact on mental health. Many bloggers have recently taken to Instagram to bring conversations about authenticity to the fore. It has become central to fourth wave feminism. Female bloggers are choosing to subvert the over-appealing ways in which we represent ourselves online to enable a more real conversation around mental health. The Instagram community now sees poets such as Naiyyrah Waheed, Christopher Poindexter, Rupi Kaur, writers, and celebrities, who write about mental health in an attempt to destigmatise it, or to offer genuine material to their audiences in an attempt to reassure those who suffer from mental illness.
For example, The Artidote, an online art magazine with 645,000 followers on Instagram created by Jovanny V. Ferreyra, succeeded recently through its Snapchat series in facilitating a massive online conversation about mental health. Ferreyra asked a simple question about where his viewers were on that current day and what was on their mind. This brought an influx of messages, some of which seemed to be serious red flags. The messages in question were published in the online community and received a lot of reaffirming responses from other followers, which even helped to stop them from taking their lives. Furthermore, people in different cities around the world contributed mental health resources, such as references and contact information of reliable mental health practitioners, to an online community database. While it continued with its objective to heal through art online, The Artidote also utilised the digital space in a very tangible way, which is often dismissed for being “fake”.
Ferreyra pointed out in an interview that the reason people seem to connect online was because they have their resources lined up for them – technology is able to collect information, filter it, and share it by a single click, facilitating easier connections online. A noteworthy theory is the Benign Online Disinhibition Effect. This involves observing increased self-disclosing behaviours with lowered psychological restraints, because the veneer of anonymity provided online protects us from the vulnerability that we would alternatively face in real-time self disclosure.
Paradoxically, the exact opposite is also found to be possible. The Toxic Disinhibition Effect, that prompts individuals to express hate and malice online because there is no culpable real-time consequence to it. An entire industry of “Instagram influencers” who are sometimes teenagers receive hate, body-shaming, and slut-shaming in their comments and messages. These can be incredibly debilitating to mental health. Alarmingly, in the Instagram age, one in six people struggle with anxiety in Ireland – a figure that has steadily increased in the past 20 years.
When I deleted my social media, I found that very few people wished me a happy birthday unless they saw a post about it on my Instagram. I also rarely talked to a few people I thought I was really good friends with when it wasn’t a quick DM as a reply to my story, or mine to theirs. While this made me re-evaluate my real social network and the growing sense of physical isolation in my life, it also made me reconsider if there really was any other way to stay connected in this age, where everyone I interacted with was to be found online.
“After a number of experiments with deleting and redownloading my Instagram, I realised that I didn’t necessarily have to give it up to feel authentically connected and mentally in control of my emotions.”
After a number of experiments with deleting and redownloading my Instagram, I realised that I didn’t necessarily have to give it up to feel authentically connected and mentally in control of my emotions. The solution was to be authentic in engaging with my friends, and sometimes strangers, online. Authenticity comes in many forms: not uploading heavily filtered photographs, writing more authentic captions to pictures, sending thoughtful DMs, and giving mindful likes to those that I genuinely wanted to engage with.
I didn’t have to obsessively and mindlessly use Instagram, and neither did I have to completely boycott it. I could call upon its online community resource when in need of it, and when it seemed to be getting to me, I could simply tune it out. All that this required me to be was self-aware. We can make social media and mental health work with each other, if we strive to monitor our consumption, and to use it as authentically as possible.