A Candid Picture of Instagram

I am delighted to welcome James to The Art of Being Holly today to share an exciting guest post providing a rounded insight into the impact of Instagram in the world of today. Take it away James…

Whether you use it or not, it’s hard to deny the impact social media has had on the way we present ourselves and perceive others online. It has led to an epidemic of addiction for many, especially for Generation Y/Z. But for me Instagram came to feel like a contest, a thousand voices competing for your attention in an endless scroll of image construction. As a queer person I must admit that the online world has helped me to explore and present a queer existence when I wasn’t yet able to in the real world. Furthermore, as a musician Instagram provides a platform to share my work – yet despite this, it is only recently that I have begun to notice the effect social media is having on my mental health.

As I am writing this, I am taking (another) social media hiatus while on holiday. Though they say absence makes the heart grow fonder, for my complicated relationship with Instagram I find taking breaks can be useful in gaining some perspective, especially given how addictive it is. I find it much easier to relax away from the frantic, overpopulated and spam-filled nature of the online social landscape. This allowed me to feel more present and ‘connected’ to the world around me rather than the one in my phone – I thought less of what my friends were doing and just focused on me, my family and my holiday. Too often does Instagram become a site of competition and boasting about where you are; who you’re with; what you’re up to, and to keep that whole period private was actually really empowering. Although I recognise that this relentless comparison perhaps isn’t directly the fault of Instagram but the ways in which we use it, I believe it is easy to fall into these competitive thought patterns on social media.

What’s scary is I don’t think we take social media seriously enough. It may seem harmless, but I have read about, seen, and felt for myself how it can affect us. Even after deleting Instagram from my phone, it’s haunting to notice my thumb reaching for its vacant space on my home screen. According to former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris, social media app creators are well aware of the addictive, psychological effects that their products have on young people: he states that “Behind the screen there are 100 engineers who know exactly how your psychology works”. Our ostensible freedom on these apps thereby seems fabricated: adverts are tailored to our monitored activity, often to suspicious specificity – recently a friend of mine has been looking for a property to move in to for their second year at university, and all over their Instagram feed appeared adverts for local estate agents and student halls of residence! Add this to Cambridge Analytica’s illicit harvesting of personal data from millions of Facebook profiles and ‘freedom’ on social media becomes a murky concept. Furthermore, the freedom of curating your own Instagram profile is for some shaped by the amount of interaction their posts receive – I’m sure many of us are guilty of deleting a photo if it didn’t pick up enough initial engagement. Instagram’s ‘likes’ can force us to perceive value vicariously on our own posts and thus, content can become shaped by public demand. Admittedly in my experience, likes have more often made me feel self-conscious from the self-perceived lack thereof, rather than validated. This is perhaps why I think Instagram has a peculiar sense of ‘endlessness’, an unending contest with ourselves and others, striving for more interaction, better posts and perhaps ultimately better versions of ourselves.

..our constant documentation of events on social media is distracting us from experiencing them authentically in real-time. Are we living presently, or vicariously through our online profiles?

Elsewhere in Tristan Harris’s interview, he admits that checking his phone so often has raised his anxiety levels, as he fears what he is “missing out on”. This is definitely something I relate to as using social media makes you feel like you’re being updated, that you’re “in” on something. Though fear of missing out is fuelled by Instagram. Sometimes this takes the form of ‘proving’ what a good time you’re having. I’ve had friends who would fake Facebook check-ins just to promote a socially active image of themselves. On Instagram, at the tap of someone’s icon you’re able to see them bragging about their beach resort holiday and fresh tan lines. I don’t think this type of hyper-visibility can always be a good thing: the addictive nature of ‘stories’ and our generation’s over-documentation means Instagram enables you to painstakingly watch your friends have a night out that you weren’t invited to. As much as these sites can make you feel included, they can also isolate. The most popular profiles remain the tanned, slim models promoting HiSmile teeth whiteners and beauty products, and younger users especially can easily internalise these exclusive, unrealistic standards of beauty. Instagram has in the past been a source for my own body comparisons with lean male models, and this is a behaviour I’m still trying to unlearn as I write this .

In many ways, I honestly am starting to find Instagram tiring. It feels ironic that we perceive value, importance and authenticity through the content of our social profiles, when face-to-face, human encounters are so much less edited, filtered and controlled. Social media and self-image construction has become so important to us as a culture that I have rejected a date with someone after perusing their Instagram, and have been on the receiving end of such treatment. Furthermore, our constant documentation of events on social media is distracting us from experiencing them authentically in real-time. Are we living presently, or vicariously through our online profiles? I can’t provide a blanket answer, but I don’t believe we should be ignorant to how we use and think about social media. Perhaps it has now been around long enough for us to notice its effects in the long term: certainly, the social comparison that Instagram etc can easily lead to is one of its common side effects. At the very least we need to acknowledge that this technology can be toxic if misused and be actively aware of the psychology at play.

How do you feel about Instagram? What impact does it have on you? We would love to hear your thoughts!

Want more of James? Read my previous interview with him, where we discussed all things creativity.

Love James [and Holly]

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