Briefly, in 2016, I owned a vape. I was one of those people who was evangelical about how my cherry-flavoured vape was the thing that had, finally, helped me to stop smoking several cigarettes a day. But every time the stupid thing ran out of charge (or I had a couple of drinks), I’d smoke a cigarette again. Having the vape had allowed me to carry on living my life in exactly the same way, still counting out my time in cigarette breaks and nicotine hits, while being able to tell myself that I was improving. It made my addiction palatable. I ended up going back to smoking.
I’ve thought about this recently as Instagram has made a PR showcase of its trial of removing “likes” from its platform. To be clear: the ability to like posts isn’t disappearing, nor is the ability for users to know how many likes their own posts got. What is changing is the counter that appears beneath photos – instead of “John and 100,000 others like this”, for select users around the world, it now says, “John and others like this”.
Instagram has made clear in its announcement that this decision is one designed with users’ wellbeing in mind. Instagram chief Adam Mosseri said: “We want people to worry a little bit less about how many likes they’re getting on Instagram and spend a bit more time connecting with the people that they care about.” He added, “we will make decisions that hurt the business if they help people’s wellbeing and health”. Many headlines have repeated this line straightforwardly, with Cosmopolitan declaring that the platform was “hiding likes for the benefit of your mental health”, and others noting the potentially “big impact” or “huge consequences” this move could have on our collective wellbeing.
On the surface of it, this seems to be a clear-cut response to widespread reports that Instagram is basically poison for your brain. Media coverage of this argument frequently points to a 2017 study which found that, when compared to other social media platforms, young people ranked Instagram as the worst for their mental health. This poll of 1,479 people has been taken as empirical evidence that the platform damages our mental health, but is often interpreted in loose and unclear ways; we attribute to the platform an increase in anxiety, jealousy, and narcissism, but its exact impact is hard to quantify or verify.
So, as Instagram makes the bold claim to be trying to help our wellbeing and mental health, it’s worth interrogating what impact the app actually has on its users, and whether it’s something that can really be addressed by the app itself.
Natasha Devon is a writer, broadcaster, and campaigner for young people’s mental health. “Every mental health academic I’ve spoken to agrees that, unless the user is being cyber-bullied, social media does not directly cause mental health issues,” she explains. “It can, however, exacerbate them.”
While she welcomes Instagram taking steps to address the epidemic, she says that “we shouldn’t fall into the trap of believing anything Instagram or any other platform can do would solve the crisis. We have arrived at this point because of a complex web of factors – not least of all, lack of mental health services.”
Psychologist Sophie Mort has a large following herself on Instagram, under the handle @_drsoph. She, of all people, can see its benefits, particularly when it comes to fostering community and normalising talk about mental health. “Celebrities and influencers have been using the platform to raise awareness of their own battles with depression, anxiety, loneliness, and eating disorders,” she says. “This has helped de-stigmatise these conversations and given people a sense that they are not alone. Also, therapists have taken to the platform to share basic psychoeducation. Instagram itself is not inherently good or bad. It is what we do with it that counts.”
None of this is to say that Instagram is good for mental health – only that the reality of how it impacts us is more complex than headlines usually show. Which brings us back to the platform’s change in how it displays likes: is such a superficial change really likely to make that much of a difference in the wellbeing of its users?
In his book Irresistible, professor of marketing and technology Adam Alter breaks down how smartphones and their apps are designed to keep the user addicted. Like slot machines, he argues, their value is measured through “time on device”. This is why Instagram constantly prods you with notifications and dazzling, distracting features: the longer you look, the more you tap, the better its business model is performing.
Alter also digs into the damaging psychological impact of coming to depend on Facebook or Instagram “likes” for an instant hit of social validation. He notes that an underperforming post, or negative comments, can have a much larger psychological impact than positive responses (this is known in psychology as the aptly named “bad is stronger than good” principle). While hiding the number of “likes” removes the public shame aspect of not getting many likes on a post, it doesn’t change the fact that the user will still know about it, and still internalise a message about their own self-worth.
As Mort describes it, when someone double-taps on your post, “you get a hit of dopamine. Your brain then starts to crave this release, and quickly, we’re hooked.” Instagram are hiding “likes” from public view, but users will still see when others like their photos; so whether this will really have an impact on our dopamine cravings is questionable. “It’s unclear how much anxiety this will really alleviate.”
Devon notes that “low self-esteem is a primary diagnostic criteria in virtually every mental illness, and likes teach us to measure our worth through the validation of others. They also teach us to place value in the wrong things – I got more likes on a random picture of me looking glamorous than I did when I posted an announcement about getting an MBE for services to young people. I kinda wish I didn’t know that.” Even if Devon was using Instagram’s new likes-free model, she would still be made aware of her followers’ preferences.
More importantly, this small change doesn’t begin to tackle the many issues with dependent Instagram use that Alter outlines in his book, and that have been documented elsewhere: from the impact that blue light has on our sleep patterns, to the waves of outrage and triggering content that the app contains, to the permanent tethering to switched-on work culture, to the absolute maximisation of productivity at all times. These aren’t app design problems. These are cultural problems.
It’s also worth noting that industry insiders have pointed out that Instagram very likely has its own business motivations for hiding the number of “likes” underneath photos. It could be that they are preparing to launch a go-between service for influencers and brands, to try and get a cut of the money that young entrepreneurs are making on the platform, or that they are trying to make it easier for businesses to compete with influencers. Or it could be an attempt to conceal the decline in engagement that is currently happening across the app.
While he makes a case for removing numerical metrics from social media platforms, ultimately, Alter ends his book by advocating for a total cultural shift: “Our attitude to addictive experiences is largely cultural,” he writes, “and if our culture makes space for work-free, game-free, screen-free downtime, we and our children will find it easier to resist the lure of behavioural addiction.”
Similarly, in How To Do Nothing, artist and writer Jenny Odell lays out the case for making space in your life to – as you might have guessed from the title – do nothing. She spends significant passages of the book describing herself taking walks around San Francisco, or feeding crows on her apartment’s balcony, simply absorbing her surroundings. In a world that attempts to force us to maximise our productivity at every moment of the day, she highlights how enriching, how crucial for our overall wellbeing it is to create empty spaces inside our lives. This can’t be achieved through temporary “digital detoxes” – which she argues are incompatible with modern life, and usually only accessible to a privileged few – but only by ingraining refusal and resistance into how we interact with technology on a day-to-day basis.
She quotes the Oxford University technology ethicist James Williams as having written that the distraction of social media “undermines our capacities for reflection and self-regulation… There are deep ethical implications lurking here for freedom, wellbeing, and even the integrity of the self.”
Jo Holmes, the Children, Young People and Families Lead at the BACP (British Association of Counsellors and Psychotherapists) feels that “the removal of the number of visible likes is a step in the right direction”, but also only “scratching the surface”. She agrees that ultimately, to protect young people’s mental health in particular, we need to radically re-think our relationship with social media. “As a society, I think we should take more collective responsibility in the way we model behaviours,” she writes. “We’ve moved towards a societal acceptance of craving likes, whatever our age, with our smartphones often at hand, giving little respite unless we are able to manage our digital self-care effectively (learning to switch devices off being important here). I would like to see more campaigns in this area, as opposed to just blaming the corporate companies – who do have a huge role to play here, but in partnership with the rest of us.”
This is what Instagram doesn’t want you to know: the best thing for your mental health is to begin extricating yourself from the app’s grip on your life, in whatever ways you can. It’s a business, and so of course, it doesn’t truly want you to start de-prioritising the app; it wants you to simply feel better about your continued use of it. The company’s co-option of the language of “wellbeing” is unnerving, and even slightly sinister – it absorbs the critique that Instagram is a contributor to poor mental health, and tries to sell it back to us with a minor change, like the tobacco industry peddling vape pens.
This is what makes me think of my anxious, nicotine-addicted self in 2016 (and 2017, and 2018…), when I made many sporadic attempts to quit smoking using nicotine-containing products. I cried with frustration several times as I kept running into an uncomfortable truth: real, sustainable change wasn’t going to be sold to me by a tobacco company. It was going to have to come from myself.
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