Like or Dislike: On Instagram, That’s Not the Whole Picture

The underlying truth behind social media's competitive and comparative nature.

Image courtesy of Unsplash
Image courtesy of Unsplash

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Over one billion people use Instagram per month. That is the equivalent of the combined populations of Brazil, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan, and the United States. According to Instagram critics, that also means that the equivalent of these five nations’ populations are feeling stress due to social pressures that come with Instagram use, particularly the judgmental element of the “like” feature. 

A phenomenon amongst younger generations, the Instagram app is a modern way to share photos with a wide audience. Many users post carefree photos, while others use the platform to raise awareness of various causes, such as the recent campaigns around Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ+ Pride. Regardless of intention, the majority of posts are driven and monitored through “likes” — the little heart-shaped icon below each post that people can click on to indicate that they “like” the post, adding their names to a public and growing tally. 

Last year, the company came up with an unexpected solution in response to the stress that “likes” put on users, responding to public backlash. “We want your followers to focus on what you share, not how many likes your posts get,” Instagram said. The company put into testing a new feature in which only the owner of the account that shares the post can see the total number of “likes” it gets; this is in contrast to the current practice, where both the number of “likes,” as well as those who gave them, are still public. 

But do we “like” that?  

As this decision has gained more public attention, many new voices are rising above the backlash. An article published earlier this year in The New York Times walks readers through the decision and gives a peek into the thought process of the man behind the action, Adam Mosseri, CEO of Instagram. In the words of Mosseri, “Social media, I think, often serves as a great amplifier of good and bad.” He explained that eliminating the like button would ideally “depressurize the app,” and give users a purely positive experience.

The feature, while originally unproblematic, has become unhealthy for those more susceptible to external opinion. While this is a real issue, the larger problem is the feeling of acceptance that the “like” button provides. 

“Seeing the ‘likes’ roll in on posts can activate reward pathways in the brain that are similar to the ones activated in addiction, especially in kids and teens,” says Dr. Neha Chaudhary, M.D., a child psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School and Co-Founder and Chief Research Officer of Brainstorm: The Stanford Lab for Mental Health Innovation. “These are the types of inadvertent risks that companies likely don’t anticipate from the start, but need to start having on their radar,” she adds.

The concept of keeping “likes” private could relieve stress for many users, as trends would be less likely to form and user competition would become less common. Hypothetically, this change could also promote healthy thinking by pointing app users away from dangerous comparisons, especially with the youth demographic. For these reasons, the removal of the visible “like” count could reduce anxiety at large, making Instagram a more positive and safe environment.

Instagram, however, still fails to address another key feature that drives competitive behavior: the human hunger for validation. Unfortunately, it isn’t just “likes” that indicate some form of popularity, validation, or acceptance. The number of followers that a user has is also an equal measure of popularity. Just dealing with the issue of “likes” doesn’t really solve the larger problem. The desire for “likes” and followers stems from a need for acceptance; the positive feelings associated with receiving such affirmations are often as addictive as they are harmful.

So how can we address this issue?

Ultimately, it is our responsibility to regulate our own actions and reactions. But that level of self-regulation requires much larger social and educational change. The feeling of approval is one that we all subconsciously seek; therefore, change must start on an individual level. The real cure for our addiction to public reinforcement is building secure emotional foundations as people before we start to interact with social media platforms like Instagram. In other words: confidence. “Confidence is a critical component of health and well-being,” said Dr. Nina Vasan, M.D., M.B.A., Founder and Executive Director of Brainstorm: The Stanford Lab for Mental Health Innovation and psychiatrist at Silicon Valley Executive Psychiatry. “Confident people trust their choices and skills, and don’t rely on external validation such as ‘likes.” This leads to better self-esteem, interpersonal relationships, professional success, and mental mental health changes including decreased anxiety and fear and increased motivation and resilience.”

The truth is that the public removal of “likes,” while well-intentioned, is only a small piece of a much more prevalent problem. Social media users need to lead the charge in shifting a larger social mentality rather than leaning on a company to make small feature changes. Truthfully, the constant comparison of ourselves to others isn’t an experience unique to browsing through Instagram. It is one that we experience subconsciously and consciously in all walks of life. If we don’t find inner satisfaction, we will be dissatisfied in other areas of our lives, whether that be through a superficial app or self-image.

Instagram isn’t just a social metric. It is also a network and income-generator for many users. Often, companies will provide sponsorships and brand deals with social media users through accessing their “likes” and followers. This information was previously public to everyone; however, with “likes” only visible privately, companies would need a different way to acquire user data. The situation raises concerns about user safety, privacy, and the ethics of selling data. This wouldn’t be the first time that a social media enterprise has dealt with such accusations. Facebook, coincidentally the owner of Instagram, recently got called out for selling private data from over 87 million users to companies like Netflix and Spotify, in a data harvesting fiasco. But that’s only part of the problem.

In other words, “likes” are problematic because they have different impacts on different user groups. 

Taking away the “like” feature might be a ‘Band-Aid’ approach that hides the real problem: Humans are addicted to receiving approval from others, regardless of whether they’re strangers or the people closest to them. The unintended purpose of Instagram is to affirm others or to seek affirmation. If we think about it, the choice to post and seek validation is exactly that: a choice and a conscious decision. 

While Instagram highlights the societal pressures we place on ourselves and others, it is not the cause of these issues, but rather a symptom. And it’s a serious one. It’s time to think about how to best treat this “affliction” and give users the confidence to keep them healthy and thriving.

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More Thrive Global on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis

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