When Instagram hit cyberspace in 2010, it was marketed as a photo and video-sharing application for users to publish snapshots of their lives at a particular point in time. Regarded as one of the world’s most influential social media networks, its 700 million users now follow trends, post ‘stories’ and explore content contributed by the global community.
However, Notre Dame PhD researcher and tutor, Carmen Papaluca, has found that the Instagram landscape isn’t all fun hashtags and cool photo filters. Many young users have reported experiencing feelings of anxiety, depression, loneliness, bullying and negative self-esteem.
In a study aimed at exploring the effects of Instagram on the wellbeing of young female university students, Carmen discovered that those in their late-teens or early-twenties had vastly different reactions to Instagram images than those in their mid-twenties.
In a series of focus groups involving more than 50 students aged 18-25 years, Carmen presented a range of images on fitness, beauty, nutrition, health, travel and work.
“Students in their late-teens and early-twenties were drawn to the images of fitness and beauty. But rather than positive reactions, the images generated feelings of inadequacy and negative self-perception,” said Carmen, who decided to undertake the research to clarify the link between Instagram use and emotional wellbeing.
“While images related to fitness encouraged students to keep active, they were motivated to do so from a negative perspective – to help them overcome their perceived physical shortcomings.
“However, students in their mid-twenties were far more focused on work and lifestyle. They felt their lives lacked meaning in comparison to others in the same age group who had posted ‘selfies’ working abroad, travelling to exotic destinations or showing off their enviable social lives,” she added.
Common across the entire group was a tendency for the students to manipulate their own Instagram accounts by boosting follower ratios and using fake images as a way of coping with the feelings of inadequacy and envy they experienced while using the social media platform.
“Despite the negative aspects, they all feel the need to document their own lives on Instagram in order to seek validation, try to improve their popularity and self-esteem through ‘likes’ and comments,” Carmen said.
“It’s a kind of vicious cycle and, alarmingly, these feelings of anxiety and low self-esteem are often generated from within their own friendship circles.”
As a next step, Carmen plans to use the research to inform a larger study measuring the impact of Instagram on various aspects of wellbeing among female adolescents. She also wants to use her collective research to inform schools and policy makers about the negative implications of social media platforms.
“I think it is still underestimated how pervasive the social media influence is for children and teenagers, and how the negative impact is carried forward into their twenties. Therefore we need to address this issue when children and adolescents start using social media and when their level of usage peaks,” said Carmen.
“I hope this research will start the conversation among young people and those around them – including parents and teachers, and provide important information for school, policy makers and health professionals, particularly about the potential negative implications around Instagram.”