Before I realised what was happening, I’m convinced that social media negatively was negatively affecting my mental health. On a bad day, Instagram, in particular, used to send my anxiety levels skyrocketing. I call this Instagram anxiety!
But considering the average British person checks their phone 28 times a day, paired with the fact that the average amount of screen time per day adds up to an insane 3 hours and 23 minutes, I know I’m not alone on this one.
The world is more connected than ever. And while seeing happy snaps from our friend’s and family’s daily lives makes us smile, an endless barrage of flawless influencer photos, seemingly forever-perfect lives and the pressure to post can sometimes cause the opposite.
Our minds are well and truly consumed by apps on our phone, even though they often leave us feeling worse off than before we scrolled — enter, Instagram anxiety.
So does social media affect mental health and — more importantly — what can we do to stop it from doing so? Here’s my take on social media and mental health, how I’m dealing with Instagram anxiety, as well as a few tips and tricks to help any of you who feel the same:
Social media mental health: The facts
Before I start rambling about my own experience, I thought it’d be interesting to see how widespread this really is. Here’s what I found:
- Social Media Use and Adolescent Mental Health: Findings From the UK Millennium Cohort Study: This study found an association between social media use and depressive symptoms within young people living in the UK.
- Seeing Everyone Else’s Highlight Reels: How Facebook Usage is Linked to Depressive Symptoms: This study provides evidence that people feel depressed after spending a great deal of time on Facebook because they feel bad when comparing themselves to others.
- Young Health Movement’s Status of Mind: This report includes a table of social media platforms in relation to their impact on young people’s mental health. Instagram was ranked the most detrimental to young people’s mental health and wellbeing.
- Roles of cyberbullying, sleep, and physical activity in mediating the effects of social media use on mental health and wellbeing among young people in England: This study found that social media may harm girls’ mental health due to increased exposure to bullying and reduced sleep and physical exercise.
In summary, many studies found that social media did indeed have a negative impact on mental health. Others suggest that the link is more complicated than researchers and scientists initially thought — and that the negative feelings associated with social media may be down to a lack of in-person connection, sleep and exercise, rather than the simple act of browsing social media alone.
For another perspective, I posted a story on my Instagram profile asking people how social media has affected their mental health. Bearing in mind the majority of people who follow me are female and between the ages of 18 and 30, here are some of the comments I received (copyedited for clarity, but the points remain the same):
“Never feel good enough. No matter what. Someone always appears to be doing better.”
“Full of doom and gloom. I try to read what I need and then go off.”
“I get scared of posting because I feel like my photos aren’t good enough.”
“I just end up comparing myself to everyone whilst scrolling through.”
“It makes me feel like I’m not doing well enough in life.”
“I feel like I’m addicted to Instagram, but I always end up feeling worse after going on it.”
I also ran a simple ‘yes or no’ poll asking them whether they feel social media has affected their mental health negatively. After a few hours, it came to about a 70% yes to 30% no split — so while social media clearly doesn’t affect everyone’s mental health, it’s still a surprisingly common problem.
How Instagram anxiety affects me
Of all the social media platforms I use, Instagram is definitely the most problematic in terms of mental health. In my personal experience, it’s a bit of a double-edged sword.
On one hand, I damn well love it. My friend’s funny stories, the amazing and uplifting acne community and all the positive, relatable accounts I follow make me feel happy.
But on the other hand, I hate it. Because no matter how much I try to avoid it, I always run into some form of content that ends up making me stressed, anxious, inadequate or, well, ugly.
A case of comparisonitis
For me, Instagram brings on a serious case of comparisonitis — ‘the compulsion to compare one’s accomplishments to another’s to determine the relative importance’ (I totally thought I’d made the word up, but it turns out it has its own Wikipedia page!).
This comparison takes endless forms, but perhaps the easiest way to explain it is in the form of a little anecdote, so here we go:
“It’s Sunday afternoon and I’ve had a super chilled weekend. I visited my parents, took my dog for a long walk, wrote a blog, had a coffee in town and watched a film with my boyfriend.
I’m very happy in my own company and am a self-confessed ambivert, so every now and then, a chill out like this is much-needed. I’ve actually had a lovely time and feel relaxed and ready for another hectic week. But suddenly, I find myself scrolling through Instagram.
First, I see a flawless photo of a Love Island star in a bikini. Woah, she’s literally gorgeous. But why don’t I look like that? I’ve been going to the gym loads and eating healthy…ish. Ok, maybe those Oreos and the pizza yesterday ruined it. Maybe I need to spend MORE time at the gym. Way, way more.
Second, all the photos of the alcohol-fuelled, fun Saturday nights out pop up. All I did last night was sit on the sofa, eat junk food and watch films with my boyfriend. I had such a nice time, but now I feel like I’m a boring person. Am I the only person in the entire world who wasn’t out last night? Okay, yes, it appears so…
Third, a blogger I like posts a grid photo about her new blog. The post got 1,120 likes and 130 comments. She’s an amazing writer. Her content is so beautiful and aesthetically pleasing. My blogs are rubbish in comparison. I’m not aesthetic in the slightest. Maybe that’s why I average about 50 likes only. I need to work harder.
Fourth, that super romantic couple posts another loved-up weekend snap. They’re so cute *scrolls feed*. They’re literally couple goals! My boyfriend hates photos and we rarely get any together. I need to get more photos with him — people might think we don’t love each other. We really do love each other… but maybe we don’t look cute enough on Instagram.
Fifth, some girl I once knew has posted a photo of her flashy new car. My peugeot 106 looks like an actual ladybug and struggles to do 70mph. People might think I’m lame. My car is lame. Should I spend all my savings on a new car?
I put my phone down and suddenly feel like I’ve got vast amounts of self-improvement to do, that everyone had a better weekend than me, that I’m not successful enough and that my Instagram just isn’t up to par.”
Okay, so I’m not saying all those intense feelings would appear in one sitting, but you get the gist.
In reality (and when I’m thinking logically) I know a night out every now and then is enough for me, I don’t give a crap whether I’m ‘popular’ or not, I’m super happy with our ladybug car simply because it gets us from A to B, and I know I’m working as hard as I can on my career and blog. I shouldn’t have to prove a thing to anyone via an Instagram feed anyway. Additionally, I know that other’s success doesn’t dampen my own and I’m all for clapping like mad when other people win.
So why do I get stuck in these weird headspaces where I scroll for hours and end up convincing myself that I’m not doing well enough? I think Instagram has a bad habit of taking me away from my real life — which I’m actually very content with — and putting me into this alternate universe, where I’m suddenly questioning my appearance, how I spend my time, how popular I am, how successful I am and how validated my relationship is.
And that’s all because of a highlights reel of photos that actually proves very little in comparison to all the tiny moments and fun experiences that make up my actual life — and that the internet never sees. Super silly, eh? It’s funny how the mind plays these tricks on you.
The pressure to post something ‘like worthy’
When I was a teenager and Instagram was new, everything was a lot more authentic and realistic. Now, at least in the world of influencers and blogging, Instagram feeds are professionally and flawlessly curated. Influencer’s feeds are colour-schemed with the perfect blend of tones; every post looks good both individually and as a collective.
In one sense I love this — I’ve always been creative and I see it almost as an art in itself and an amazing way for people to express themselves.
But again, the double-edged sword strikes. In terms of my blog account, I’ve found myself obsessively worrying about what to post on Instagram next, whether the photo I’ve taken is good enough and whether people will like it (physically, with a double-tap) or not. I can’t help but watch the likes trickle in after I’ve posted, and if they’re slow to garner, I start questioning myself and what I’ve said.
Considering I blog about feeling good in your own skin, being your true self, going makeup-free and challenging beauty standards, these feelings challenge the very reason I started a second account in the first place.
I should be posting what I want, with the messages I’m passionate about — and it shouldn’t be about how things look or how many likes my posts get. It should be about helping others, even if that only earns me a few likes.
Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s totally fine to aim to up the photographic ‘quality’ of your feed, which I enjoy doing. It’s more than I don’t want to end up being inauthentic by posting what I think will get the most likes, rather than what I actually want to post.
And in terms of my personal account, which is filled with friends from across school, university, freelance jobs and contracts and my time travelling? Oh man, don’t get me started. If my skin isn’t perfectly smooth, my hair gloriously shiny or my stomach sucked in the most it can possibly be, the photo isn’t going up on there. I hate the fact I’ve just admitted that and it’s something I’m working on every day — but I know I’m not the only one who feels that way.
Social media mental health: 5 tips + tricks to tackle it
As you can see, this isn’t something I’ve got completely figured out. But it is something I’m highly aware of and that I’m consciously trying to rectify.
Recently, I’ve been forcing myself to commit to a few unwritten ‘rules’ in terms of my social media usage — and so far, they seemed to have helped!
With that said, check out my 5 tips and tricks to deal with Instagram anxiety and reduce the effect that social media has on your mental health:
1. Make use of the unfollow and mute buttons
I’ve unfollowed or muted a hell of a lot of accounts recently — and I don’t feel the slightest bit guilty for doing so! I’ve simply realised that there’s no point in viewing content that makes me feel inadequate, worried about my appearance or just generally shit. What your brain consumes digitally has more of an impact on your wellbeing than you may think.
The wonderful thing about social media is that it can be whatever you want it to be. If you want to follow your very close friends only, you’re totally allowed to do so. If travel photos make you feel inspired, follow all the travel accounts out there. If you’re really career-focused right now, follow all the encouraging and powerful career content available. You get the gist. You’ve got the freedom to make your feed full of content that is good for your soul, whatever that may be.
But is unfollowing accounts of people you’ve actually met or know personally mean? Well, in my opinion, it depends on who it is. For example, it’s totally not essential that you follow someone you knew five years ago and haven’t spoken to since. If their content leaves you feeling dejected, it’s time to press unfollow. They probably won’t even notice — and if they do? Sure, it might sting a little and they may wonder what happened, but you’re not besties and ultimately, your feed is in your power.
On the flip side, what if someone you’re closer to is posting stuff that makes you feel a little bit shit? That’s where the mute button comes in. I’ve personally never felt the need to unfollow or mute a very close friend, but the mute button has certainly come in handy for people I’ve been friends with in the past or was once close with and would feel harsh unfollowing altogether.
By muting them, you won’t see their content or stories, but you’ll still be following them — and they won’t know anything has happened. It works wonders, I tell ya!
2. Limit your screen time
This is a super simple one, but holding yourself accountable for the amount of time you spend on your phone can actually do wonders. Most new phones come with the option to record your screen time and some will even notify you once you’ve reached a certain amount.
If you have this feature, switch it on and check back in after a couple of days. How many hours, on average, are you spending on your phone? If it shocks you, it’s time to cut back. My advice would be to do this gradually — so if you find you’re currently spending 3 hours per day on your phone, aim for 2.5 per day next week and 2 hours per day for the week after. Keep going until you’re down to an amount you’re happy with!
3. Remember that it’s a highlight reel
Comparisonitis (can you tell I like that word?!) hits us all in some way or another whilst scrolling through social media — so sometimes, it’s important to simply be aware of what it is you’re viewing.
For the most part, social media is a highlights reel, rather than an actual representation of our lives. You might see the sunsets of holidays, flawless selfies, the glamorous evenings out with friends and the cheerful family photos at Christmas. But in reality, everyone (and I mean everyone — even that beautiful, popular, clever, flawless, successful influencer you can’t help but stalk on Instagram) experiences moments of worry, stress, anxiety, heartbreak, grief, and self-loathing. It’s just how life is.
So whilst you’re scrolling and feeling like your life doesn’t match up to his or hers, remember that an Instagram feed isn’t representative of someone’s whole life and that the person posting them is probably struggling with a lot of the same worries, fears and thoughts as you are.
4. Follow educational, uplifting or relatable accounts
In the same way that you’re free to unfollow and mute who you choose, you’re free to follow whoever you choose — and I personally think you can achieve amazing things with that freedom! Don’t limit yourself to following the same old brands and reality TV stars as everyone else; get browsing on Instagram, follow a more diverse group of people and find content that truly inspires you.
There’s a literal abundance of positive, motivating, encouraging, authentic and inspiring accounts out there, covering an array of topics and genres. Whether that’s intelligent women speaking boldly about topics they’re passionate about, becoming part of the acne positivity community (hello!) or following uplifting mental-health-warriors like Matt Haig (a personal favourite of mine), fill your feed with the things that inspire and uplift you the most.
5. Realise that likes and follows don’t define you
I think I’d be hard-pressed to find a person of my age who actively uses Instagram and hasn’t been tempted to delete a post because it got zero, or very few, likes. But this isn’t a healthy way of living or expressing ourselves — in fact, it’s a pretty damn toxic way of thinking.
So, try to remember that your worth is not (and never will be) measured by the number of likes you get on a post. Let’s think about it rationally. The number of likes you get on a photo with your dog at the beach doesn’t change the fun and happiness you experienced with your dog on the beach. You and your boyfriend or girlfriend won’t suddenly love each other more because a loved-up photo got you loads of likes. The number of likes on that night out with your friends didn’t make the night out any more, or less, fun. The number of likes I get when I post about this blog on Instagram doesn’t change the message behind the blog or the effort I put into writing it.
And when you’re 90 years old and looking back on your life, the amount, or lack of, Instagram likes you gained isn’t gonna be your priority. You’ll look back at your relationships, accomplishments, career, contributions to society, how you impacted and treated others, and real-life moments in general — not digital ones.
Instagram anxiety: Make your feed a happier place
Instagram isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, but what we can do is make our feed a healthier and happier place to be.
I hope this article gave you some tips and tricks to work with — and that my experiences made you realise that you’re not the only one feeling overwhelmed with it all.
So don’t waste your life away ‘doing it for the gram’. Remember that your social media feeds don’t define you, that you’re in control of the content that you consume and that the number of likes on your recent upload doesn’t prove anything about your worth as a person.