The Dark Side of Instagram
Everything was going wrong. I had made a C on my psychology exam; I hadn’t been accepted to any of the internships I applied for; I was struggling to plan my class schedule for senior year. It was a typical, stressful day in the life of a college student, and logically, I knew everything would eventually get better. But, at that time, it didn’t matter. I was moping around my apartment, stress-eating potato chips and complaining to my boyfriend, when I opened Instagram to check up on the photo I had posted earlier that day.
It had only gotten 20 likes.
And that was the last straw. I finally broke down, all of the pressure from the day caving in on me. I was convinced, in that moment, that I was destined to be disliked and unsuccessful. My Instagram followers didn’t want my photo, just like internship programs didn’t want me. I had failed in getting likes, just like I had failed at making an A on my exam. It sounds ridiculous now, and yet during my breakdown, it had felt entirely plausible
It was after this day that I started thinking, “How does my interest in Instagram actually affect me?” I had read all the articles insisting social media could lead not only to so-called “fear of missing out” (FOMO), but to mental health issues stemming from that FOMO. Still, I had always thought of myself as above such shallow concerns. After all, I’m usually a practical person. I know I have a happy and fulfilling life, Instagram couldn’t be affecting me too deeply.
Clearly, this wasn’t at all true.
When popular Australian Instagram user Essena O’Neil deleted her Instagram account in 2015, she referred to the platform as perpetuating “contrived perfection”. Thinking back on my own experience, and the similar negative stories I’ve heard from my friends, I can’t help but agree with O’Neil. Instagram, particularly for women, is a place where our biggest dreams and worst nightmares are constantly projected. Two of the most popular accounts – travel accounts and model accounts – best showcase this conundrum. For the travel accounts, we often see attractive couples holding hands and kissing and traveling the world, giving off the appearance of constant bliss and adventures. On model accounts, we see beautiful bikini clad women, showing off perfectly flat stomachs and perfectly styled hair and all the other “perfects” we secretly vie for. When we follow these accounts, we want to live vicariously through these individuals, to explore opportunities and experiences we might one day have for ourselves. But, by doing this, we also begin to believe we aren’t good enough. Why aren’t we constantly traveling? Why are we stressed or single or not a size 0? Why do we not get 10,000 likes? How can we make ourselves cooler and prettier and more popular?
Through this idea of “contrived perfection” popular Instagram accounts create, the average woman is left feeling as if she also has to aspire to this “perfection”. We feel pressure to get the right angle, the right background, the right pose. We know the peak hours to post and spend days planning clever captions. We’re constantly performing, acting in the role of what we believe a perfect woman should be.
Who is this “contrived perfection” good for? Certainly not us young women, but it may be beneficial for Instagram, who by December 2016 boasted 600 million active users. Their numbers keep growing and, unfortunately, the need for validation through Instagram likes is also likely to continuously increase.
This is not to say women should stop using Instagram. I will freely admit that, despite my criticisms, Instagram is my favorite social media platform. I love taking photos. I love the act of preserving memories and catching moments that may have never been documented without the help of a camera. I love seeing other people’s memories and sharing this art form with them.
But maybe, just maybe, next time you post a photo, ask yourself this: “Am I posting this for myself or for the likes?”
Because, believe me, you’ll survive only getting 20 likes. I know I did.