Instagram Has Some Pretty Huge Effects On Our Psychology. Here's Everything We Know So Far.
This is a new area of research, but evidence of Instagram's negative effects is starting to pile up.
Belle* is a high-profile 26-year-old Australian model with a following of over 300,000 on her Instagram account.
Operating under the pressures of the modelling industry, Belle knows firsthand the psychological distress that Instagram can cause, and how deceptive the portrayal of a person's lifestyle can be on the social media platform.
Starting her Instagram account in 2013, Belle began to cultivate an online persona that she knew did not honestly represent who she was offline, and found this had huge consequences for her mental health.
Her Instagram presence came to focus heavily on wellbeing and on posting healthy "clean eating" meals, excessive workout routines, and photographs of her thin figure.
Users commented beneath photos of her posing in lingerie with praise such as "Love your body!" and "Girl those aaaaabbbssss".
All the while, Belle was experiencing body dysmorphia, dangerously restricting her diet, and having panic attacks.
"When I was constructing a fake persona online, I used to really feel anxious and lonely. I was in a bad place mentally and found it hard to keep in mind the fact that everyone else's lives were just as curated as mine."
Belle recalls experiencing extreme anxiety about maintaining workout routines between demanding call times for shoots and becoming panicked whenever she was offered something "unplanned" to eat.
"The dissonance between my private and public life used to really chafe at me — and frankly I cringe to see the things I used to say publicly about food and nutrition."
Now that she understands her illness more wholly, Belle has since made an effort to more honestly depict herself and her life on her Instagram account, but she still finds it difficult to navigate the social media platform.
"I honestly avoid a lot of 'fitspo' accounts; I know what goes into them, I've lived it, and it is awful.
"I actually feel quite sorry for the bodies involved. There are a lot of fun evenings with friends passed up, amazing meals eschewed for steamed vegetables, and in general, life just passing them by."
While research regarding Instagram's impact on psychology is relatively new, there is increasing evidence to suggest that the app has implications for how people perceive themselves and the world around them.
Earlier this year, the UK's Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) and the Young Health Movement published a report that looked at the impact of different social media platforms on mental health.
The report was based on a survey of over 1,400 British 14-to-24-year-olds that asked about the positive and negative implications of each social media platform for health and wellbeing.
Positive factors included things such as awareness and understanding of other people's health experiences, access to health information, the opportunity for self-expression, and community building.
The negative factors included factors such as anxiety, depression, loneliness, sleep quality, impact on body image, and fear of missing out (FOMO).
Based on ratings from the teenagers and young adults, each platform was given a net average score and ranked by their impact.
YouTube was found to have the most positive effect overall for its users, while Instagram was found to have the most negative psychological and health associations.
Instagram scored well on its ability for self-expression, but it was linked with some of the worst scores for sleep loss, body image concerns, and FOMO.
Belle agrees that, when used correctly, Instagram can still give her some positive feelings despite her negative experiences.
"I love the sense of connectivity I feel with my followers and the people I follow. I love the body-positive movement and seeing people be real about themselves online to some degree."
Shirley Cramer, chief executive of RSPH, said the positive effect of social media needs to be promoted but there should be checks and balances in place for apps such as Instagram to mitigate their destructive effects on wellbeing.
"It's interesting to see Instagram and Snapchat ranking as the worst for mental health and wellbeing — both platforms are very image-focused and it appears they may be driving feelings of inadequacy and anxiety in young people," she said.
The research into how Instagram affects our psychology is relatively new, but there is a growing body of evidence to say that it has a profound effect on the way we perceive ourselves and the world around us.
So, how exactly does Instagram affect our psychology?
There's a lot of science to unpack here and the impact of Instagram on body image seems an obvious place to start.
The platform was created for the express purpose of image sharing and is now dominated by lifestyle posting, celebrity images, and so-called “influencers” — attractive social media celebrities who act as guerilla marketing figures.
The Instagram influencer market is projected to reach a value of US$2 billion globally by 2019, according to media marketing agency Mediakix.
Internet exposure has been shown previously to negatively impact body image through the internalisation of unrealistic standards and comparison to other people’s bodies, and now more recent research is focusing on social media, including Instagram.
One study found that use of social networking sites significantly increases adolescent girls’ obsessive surveillance of their own bodies, an effect not found with magazine or television exposure.
Rachel Cohen, a psychologist and researcher from the Black Dog Institute at the University of New South Wales, told BuzzFeed News that exposure to Instagram influencers online could be having a unique effect on self-perception and body image.
“The problem with Instagram is that celebrity culture has almost become exponentially and infinitely worse — because not only is it now your Kardashians or your elite celebrity, now it’s your everyday person,” Cohen said.
“There are so many influencers and people out there who are getting elevated to that status and there’s exponentially more opportunities to compare yourself with people.”
In a study published last year, Cohen and her co-authors found that it wasn’t so much social media use itself that impacted how people perceived their bodies but rather how they were using it.
Following body- and appearance-focused accounts on Instagram — as opposed to neutral accounts dedicated to things such as travel — was associated with idealising thin bodies, obsessive surveillance of one’s own body, and striving for thinness.
This association with body dissatisfaction was greater for those following accounts dedicated to depictions of health and fitness.
“Fitspiration” is big business on Instagram, with celebrity fitness trainers building empires out of their workout routines. Trainer Kayla Itsines and her partner are reportedly worth $46 million, due largely to the success of her Instagram profile.
“With fitspiration, a lot of people go to it for inspiration and motivation and they do have some element of inspiration, but there has been some research that has shown experimentally that it makes people feel worse and that it doesn’t necessarily lead to an increase in exercise or health outcomes,” said Cohen.
“I found that it’s not specifically social media use overall that’s related to body image outcomes, but … specific types of engagement — following your Kardashians or your fitspiration accounts, or following anything that has a focus on appearance.”
Previous research that was not focused on social media suggested that problems with fitspiration mostly occurred when women were exposed to thin and toned bodies, while images of women of a normal weight with muscular build did not create body dissatisfaction issues.
Having been behind the scenes of an Instagram account that involved elements of fitspiration during her illness, Belle says she is now saddened by these kinds of images.
“Letting go of that mentality has changed my life, and when I see women still trapped in that cycle, I just hope they are happy and content with their lives.”
However, Cohen is hopeful that the positive body movements emerging on the platform will have far-reaching benefits for how women reflect on their own physiques.
She has recently submitted a paper for publication demonstrating that among 195 young women exposed to “body-positive” images, mood, body satisfaction, and body appreciation were all improved significantly.
Besides the Instagram obsession with “fitspiration”, there is also evidence to say that selfie culture on the app can have detrimental effects on psychological well-being.
Cohen published a study this year that looked at the association between selfies and body-related concerns for young women.
She found that greater investment in selfie activities, such as preparing for photographs and editing them afterwards, was more strongly associated with body dissatisfaction and eating concerns than normal social media usage.
Cohen has borrowed a term from social sciences to explain why this may be occurring: self-objectification.
“It’s basically when a woman internalises this objectified view of herself and starts seeing herself as an object,” said Cohen.
This “selfie-objectification” phenomenon (as Cohen has dubbed it) was observed across 259 women aged 18 to 29 years old, half of whom reported taking a selfie at least once a fortnight.
Cohen and her co-authors found that taking selfies was significantly associated with lower body satisfaction, striving for thinness, and bulimia.
“If you think about all these apps you can use now with filters and manipulating the body, it’s almost like you’ve got Photoshop in your phone. You are literally manipulating or photoshopping your image to conform with social norms, to be evaluated by others,” said Cohen.
“The selfie itself — you’re almost starting to objectify, see yourself as this object.”
As a model and Instagram personality, Belle said she relates to this concept.
“When my Instagram was wrapped up in the identity of [Belle], model, I definitely found it harder. If I wasn’t modelling, did I really exist? But after some time I realised that it doesn’t mean anything. I am a whole person outside of modelling and Instagram.”
While this may all sound like bad news for Instagram users, it seems that the psychological effects of Instagram may simply come down to how you use the app.
In 2004 Dr John Suler, a professor of psychology at Rider University in New Jersey, described the online disinhibition effect, a psychological phenomenon that explains online behaviour and the construction of online personalities that appear at odds with who you are in real life.
Suler said that online disinhibition is evident when people are in social places in cyberspace and they “loosen up, feel less restrained, and express themselves more openly”.
According to Suler, this shift comes in two forms: toxic and benign disinhibition.
The theory emphasised that the disinhibition shouldn't be thought of as revealing of a “true self”, but a shift in cognition and behaviour that still falls under a person's normal personality “umbrella”.
People can either shift to becoming ruder, more critical, hateful, or threatening, or they can use the disinhibition to better understand themselves and resolve interpersonal problems.
Dr Jaimee Stuart, a lecturer in applied psychology at Griffith University, told BuzzFeed News that this online disinhibition effect can be witnessed in action with personalities on Instagram.
“You get this sense of exploration — and maybe it's positive exploration and maybe it's negative exploration.”
Stuart emphasises that these subtle changes in online personality aren't necessarily a bad thing for our mental health.
“There's this big part of Instagram which is just, like, exploring and expressing who you are — which I would consider to be that benign type of disinhibition, people can give you feedback — but not in a bad way.”
Stuart believes that when people use Instagram as a photo diary to document their lives, escape daily routines, or express themselves (all forms of benign disinhibition), then it can be useful and safe.
“When you’re posting things that are the best version of you and they make you happy and they express who you are, then there’s actually nothing wrong with it,” she said.
According to Stuart, Instagram only becomes problematic when users recognise that it’s not really like their real life, and the content that is posted to other people isn't an accurate representation of the self.
This false representation is an example of self-discrepancy and Stuart notes that posting content “when you know it's not really like your real life” and “isn't actually you” has a negative effect on a person's psychology.
Belle’s negative experiences as a well-recognised personality on the app have left her with mixed feelings.
“On the one hand, I love the sense of connectivity I feel with my followers and the people I follow. I love the body positivity movement and seeing people be real about themselves online. On the other hand, I find it sad to see how some people exist solely for Instagram these days.”
She now runs two accounts: one dedicated to her private life and another public one dedicated to her modelling career.
Belle has also changed the content of her public account to focus on body positivity.
“Having the separation between private and public has been a godsend,” she said. “I don't feel comfortable with the idea of myself as an object — because I'm not.
“At the end of the day, if you look to social media for your sense of self, you will always be found lacking.”
(*Name changed to protect privacy.)