Instagram was my therapy … until it wasn’t

Monday, March 16, 2020 - 2:52pm

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Design by Michelle Fan

In October 2019, I deleted my Instagram for a month. There was no dark downfall into obsession or an utter collapse of self-worth that prompted this decision, but I had been experiencing a plateau in my mental well-being at the time and had recognized social media wasn’t helping the problem. 

I loved Instagram from the moment I first downloaded it. I used to rely on it like a crutch, sharing content almost every day — posting pictures of myself smiling at a football game in the fall when I was lying in bed mid-winter, sad about a breakup or a falling out with a friend —  and putting great pressure on getting likes. Now, I use it as a digital journal, a consistent stream of consciousness and look into my life: posting pictures of candid life moments, unfiltered and unplanned. 

Last fall, in a time when my peers were continuously posting ceremonious photos and announcements of accomplishments and future plans, I was drowning in self-doubt and anxiety. My feed was constantly filled with the smiling faces of those who had their futures planned — drinking out of red cups at football tailgates, standing close with a significant other, happily accepting a return job offer and a signing bonus. 

I was genuinely overjoyed for the achievements of the people I followed, but I couldn’t stop comparing my own life to the images that filled their grid on my screen. Though I was aware that one day I’d be sharing similar achievements on my own profile, the time when their accomplishments were thrust in my face felt overwhelming and never-ending. I wanted everyone to be doing well, and I wanted the same for myself. 

Social media wasn’t the cause of the emotions I was experiencing, but my generalized anxiety, which I’ve struggled with my entire life, was greatly exacerbated by my glowing Instagram feed. I remember making the decision to post a story of a piece of greasy pizza that had no connection to my declaration of a social media detox with the caption “logging off for a month!” in a fat, pink font. The fact that I felt the need to share my decision to stop using Instagram with my followers is ironic. Maybe it’s for that reason I redownloaded the app three days later, modifying my hiatus to allow limited time for scrolling and no posting for a month.

After this Instagram cleanse, much like cutting carbs or sugar from a diet, I felt fresh and renewed. I didn’t need Instagram and even found that I now had time for more productive pastimes, like reading every night before bed. 

The deep attachment was apparent, though. Even after my Instagram detox, I essentially reverted back to my old habits, slipping into my posting routine like an old sweater. But the experiment had rendered me more mindful: I started to notice a correlation between my Instagram usage and the way I was feeling. Some days, Instagram was my therapist — others, the perpetrator of my anxiety. 

It isn’t a novel concept to suggest that social media causes mental health problems, or exacerbates them. But in struggling with these issues myself and growing up in a world that’s plugged in 24/7, I hope to discover and illuminate the more nuanced, personalized aspect of the connection. 

***

Unlike other generations, Generation Z has never known a time without the ease of cell phones, the internet and social media to stay connected, instantly gratified and plugged-in. As the first generation to grow up with the flow of information and the immediate knowledge of anyone’s and everyone’s personal life, Gen Z has always known the temptation to compare their own lives to curated highlight reels of everyone on Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter and LinkedIn. 

Growing up with the presence of social media, the world becomes a vacuum as the details that people chose to share swirl together to create a hyperreality. Comparing someone else’s phony world of vacation photos, job offers, homeownership and new relationships to one’s real life is bound to leave an individual feeling insecure, unaccomplished and pressured to aspire to a level of perfection. Millennials have been constantly faced with an impossible, unspoken task: Look like you have it all together, exude happiness and appear as though everything is perfect, even if it isn’t. 

To maintain the masquerade is to convince everyone around you that you’re just as happy, if not happier, than they are. I can recall having a day-long panic attack — from the moment I woke up, to my desk at work, through the evening on the day following my 21st birthday — and still posting a filtered photo of myself smiling in a sparkly pink dress. 

It comes as no shock that there is recorded data which suggests that social media has an impact on the mental health of Gen Z. Anxiety has been linked to many different factors in college-aged students, like loneliness, stress and uncertainty as collateral of a transitional period, to name a few. Generally speaking, the rise in mental health issues among young adults is a trend which cannot be linked to one specific cause or tangible thing — it’s subjective. However, the trend of well-being in American young adults decreasing and the time spent on electronic devices increasing suggests there does exist a correlation between social media usage and the severity of mental health issues, namely anxiety and depression. Though correlation exists, one must recognize that researchers have failed to find casual data linking mental health problems and social media, thus obfuscating the question further.

On the other hand, one study did find causal evidence of an increase in well-being due to reduced use of social media. The study, done at the University of Pennsylvania in 2018, sought to test the positive correlation between mental health and social media. The group practicing limited social media use saw a decrease in depression and loneliness, suggesting that limiting social media use can improve well-being. 

In my personal experience utilizing social media, there have been both highs and lows. There are days when I feel as though my mood is improved by viewing the lives of my peers, family members and celebrities — watching people I admire succeed or be entertained by interesting content. Conversely, there are days when I face a struggle with my presence on social media applications—comparing myself to images of others and monitoring my own social profiles can be taxing. 

But even with so many pitfalls, there are tremendous amounts of research and opinion on the basis of social media influencing mental health positively. A study done at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that when used mindfully, social media has been found to positively improve preexisting mental health issues. Research Scientist Mesfin Awoke Bekalu found that strong social networks are associated with positive mental health as the networks act as gateways for connection to others. He concludes that it is the way in which individuals use social media that is an important distinction when analyzing its effects on mental well-being. 

The question, then, is twofold:  Does social media create or exacerbate mental health problems? Does it help? If it is a damaging force on Gen Z, how do we stop a train that seems to be running full steam ahead? 

***

In an effort to better understand how college-aged individuals feel in regard to the intersection of mental health and social media, I decided to reach out to some of my peers. Throughout my investigation, only a few male-identifying individuals were interested in being interviewed, which may be indicative that these issues affect them less intensely or linked to the fact that men are less likely to speak openly about mental health issues. 

However, there were numerous college-aged women who expressed they’ve experienced both negative and positive effects on their mental health from social media usage while in college. 

“If I think about when my mental health issues began, it’s around the same time we started really using Instagram and Snapchat,” said Sophia Maita, a senior at Fordham University studying communications and culture. 

Maita, who experienced the onset of mental health issues around age 12, claims social media has had both a negative and a positive influence on her emotional well-being. “I’ve tried to set up my social media to be positive … I follow a lot of inspirational accounts,” she said. 

The posts that often make people jealous or insecure can sometimes play in as a positive: “It makes me happy to see people on Instagram and Facebook doing well and being successful,” she said.

But it’s a careful balancing act.

“Just seeing people out partying with someone who I’m not friends with or don’t get along with can be difficult.” 

The fear of missing out, often referred to as FOMO, can be defined as anxiety caused when you find out about an event that you are not attending or weren’t invited to. Usually, people are exposed to such information via social media posts. It is the feeling that everyone is having more fun than you, or experiencing something novel or exciting, and that you’re missing it. It can have negative effects on both happiness and self-esteem and has been found to provoke great distress.

That being said, FOMO can turn into something more sinister than a feeling of unease at a Snapchat story of your friends at a bar without you. 

“When I see on spring break or in the summer people looking so hot in bikini photos, and that was what I was struggling with my freshman and sophomore year of college ... feeling envy or shame really took a toll on my eating habits and how I felt about my body.” Maita said. 

Social media — especially Instagram — has been found to be damaging in regards to eating disorders: While it does not necessarily cause them, it normalizes disordered eating behaviors and fosters body dysmorphia. Most recently, TikTok has been filled with pro-eating disorder content. Many teenage girls have normalized posting videos of their “FDOE”, or full day of eating, in which they list the calories of their every meal — most often between 600-800 a day. The app has been known to glorify skipping meals and to promote weight loss supplements, thigh gaps and the constant weighing of oneself. TikTok has even been dubbed “Pro-Ana,” a term to describe the promotion of eating disorders like anorexia. 

Instagram has also been criticized for emphasizing a pro-eating disorder narrative, like through accounts that promote diet culture. These accounts advertise over-exercise, compulsive dieting and calorie counting, which can be extremely destructive to someone already engaging in eating disorder habits or tendencies. There are also “fitspiration” and “health” Instagram accounts that promote healthy habits like exercise, nourishing oneself and evading diet culture. 

“With any platform that has pages and accounts that aren’t tied to a singular person — like fitness or foodie accounts — we have the option to view diet and fitness accounts all day if we want, which can be dangerous to people with pre-existing mental health problems,” said LSA senior Hallie Fox.

 “I definitely think it’s a double-sided coin. You can see weight loss accounts saying ‘this is what people should look like’ but there are also accounts that are for recovery and struggles and body positivity,” Fox said.

Instagram has a huge community of eating disorder recovery accounts, run by women predominantly, who share their struggles with recovering from an eating disorder and use the platform as a food journal to hold themselves accountable. While this creates a sense of community and solidarity for eating disorder sufferers and survivors, doctors urge that such accounts cannot replace professional treatment.

Many social media are dedicated to creating a sense of unity and a space for those who feel alone in their struggle. Millennials and members of Gen Z have been both criticized and lauded for general openness about struggles with mental health and the de-stigmatization of therapy and dialogue around emotional well-being. 

SMTD sophomore Harper Klotz found their community online, on the website Tumblr. 

“After being diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and PTSD I didn’t know anyone around me experiencing these things, so I looked for resources and people online that I could relate to. Tumblr made me realize I wasn’t alone in what I was experiencing,” they said.

Online platforms are seldom regulated, which is part of why they work so well in connecting people and allowing them to be vulnerable. But there is a dark side to this openness. 

“Tumblr and Twitter can be really toxic, especially Tumblr … there was a lot of glorification of suicide and eating disorders … there’s mixed messages because anyone can post anything,” Klotz added.  

***

With millennials and members of Gen Z connected to our mobile devices at all times, perhaps it’s in our best interest to seek out profiles and accounts that make us feel good, as opposed to relentlessly comparing our lives to others, which can lead to destructive consequences. It’s almost impossible to know — in a place as vast and open ended as the internet, where anyone can post anything — what provokes distress and what introduces positive emotions. Many people don’t want to waste time on social media, but feel trapped. If we decide to stop utilizing social media altogether, we forgo a major means of interaction, communication and socialization between peers, friends and family members. Without social media, one could lose the ability to network, keep in touch with connections and even get hired for jobs. There’s almost no way to unplug — and even unplugging could bring on other negative feelings, like FOMO. 

Social media can be a haven of support and love, spreading affection in the form of a thumbs up and digital hearts, but it can also be a destructive path of pressure and comparison. The future is unclear for teenagers and young adults, with TikTok popular among young people and even LinkedIn causing exacerbations in stress and anxiety. Perhaps the balance — and solution — is for us to figure out on an individual basis. On the other hand, perhaps it is a societal-level issue worth concern and attention.  

***

During my Instagram hiatus, I noticed I took fewer photographs than I normally would have. It seemed to suggest that I only feel inclined to take pictures with the prospect of posting them, not necessarily just to have them to look back on as a memory. On vacation over fall break, I didn’t post once — not a picture of an aesthetically pleasing palm tree, a Caribbean sunset, a fruity cocktail or my silhouette fake-looking out at the ocean in a purple bikini — which is surprising given my inclination to shareable social media platforms like Instagram. 

I couldn’t decide if I was worse or better off without fulfilling the itch to feel fleetingly satisfied promoting happy, jubilant photos. I didn’t give in to a phony desire to share my life with the world, and eventually even forgot about posting altogether. I was no longer caught up in what everyone else was doing and how they looked over fall break. I had come down from the drug, and I was at a strange homeostasis. 

Social media is inevitable. It exists and we live among it. We can choose to embrace it for its wonderful qualities or hate it for its negative ones — or we can recognize that it can be imperfect and wonderful simultaneously. 

I’ve often thought about taking time off from social media again. Now, though, I feel more inclined to use platforms like Instagram and Twitter — which have benefited me by way of news, comedy, connection and entertainment — productively, rather than as a filter of my life. I have accepted the ebb and flow of social media platforms on my mental health, and recognized the negative exacerbation Instagram can have when I am coping with anxiety and stress. I am the only one who can bar social media from making me feel worse. 

For those of us who have lived in the yo-yo effect of deleting, redownloading and feeling incredibly aware of and attached to our profiles, I urge you to find ways to limit your use. Observe your own social media practices and focus on how they make you feel. Unplug for a few days. Practice Instagram and Snapchat use in moderation. Only in fostering a healthy balance for oneself can emotional well-being truly improve.