Instagram has helped turned the word “influencer” into a legitimate job (and often a lucrative one, too), but social media also has a dark side — especially when it comes to mental health.
Research shows that lengthy social media use can have negative implications on well-being. A recent report by the U.K.’s Royal Society for Public Health ranked Instagram as the worst app for young people’s mental health, followed by Snapchat.
That may be why Instagram is testing out hiding the “like” count on the platform and encouraging users to focus on quality over quantity.
At Facebook’s annual conference on Tuesday, Instagram — which is owned by Facebook — announced it is testing a new feature called “private like counts” which publicly hides the amount of likes a photo or video has received. The test will run only in Canada and begins this week.
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The owner of the content can see how many people “liked” their photo or video, but only if they ask for that information, Instagram said.
Instagram also said they are testing out making follower counts “much less prominent” on peoples’ profiles.
“We are testing this because we want your followers to focus on the photos and videos you share, not how many likes they get,” an Instagram spokesperson said to CNN.
The announcement comes after speculation that the social media company had changes in the works.
In mid-April, Jane Manchun Wong tweeted that Instagram is apparently “testing hiding like count from audiences.” Wong is a 24-year-old tech expert who is known for reverse-engineering popular social media networks like Facebook and Twitter to find vulnerabilities and unreleased features.
“As stated in the app: ‘We want your followers to focus on what you share, not how many likes your posts get,'” Wong tweeted.
Wong has detected features like Instagram’s dashboard, which reveals how much time you spend on the app, and a “Twitter tool that lets you subscribe to conversations,” CNN reports.
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An Instagram spokesperson previously denied the testing in a statement to Global News, saying: “We’re not testing this at the moment, but exploring ways to reduce pressure on Instagram is something we’re always thinking about.”
Will this move make us happier?
According to Jennifer Grygiel, an assistant professor of communications at Syracuse University, this move probably won’t reduce the negative effects tied to excess social media use.
“We have to view most product updates in the lens of ‘the corporation is going to do what’s good for the corporation,'” Grygiel told Global News.
“Maybe the company has done some research internally… and [has] found that holding back that information will help with social anxiety a bit, but any change brings some type of effect. We could end up in a situation where maybe anxiety around posting decreases a little bit, which then increases time spent on the app because [users] feel a little more cloaked or protected.”
Grygiel said that hiding “likes” may also encourage users to share more photos, which in turn increases the amount of user data Instagram will have access to. Grygiel said that Facebook highly values profitable user data.
“We need to assume that given Facebook’s history, the company is acting in its own self-interest,” Grygiel said.
Social media pressure can be harmful
Grygiel has seen first-hand how time spent on social media can affect users’ well-being. The professor said that many young Instagram users seek validation through the content they share.
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“I often, certainly, hear from my students that if they post a picture on Instagram and don’t get x amount of ‘likes’ within a few minutes, they are like, ‘Oh my god, that fell flat,’ and they pull the content,” Grygiel said.
“Users know approximately their engagement because they can see over time how many likes they get. They’re comparative even with their own selves.”
According to the U.K. survey on social media and mental heath, Instagram caused anxiety, depression, loneliness and issues with sleep, body image and bullying.
Amid reports of the harmful effects, Instagram announced in early April that it had launched a “well-being team.”
During a speech at Cornell University in New York, senior Instagram executive Eva Chen said that the well-being of the app’s online community is “one of the top priorities.”
While the company hasn’t revealed how much progress the new team has made, part of its mandate is to figure out ways to “prevent spam, abuse and harassment” on the platform.
What will better our mental health?
Grygiel said while it’s important app companies are aware of mental health concerns, it’s up to users to find ways to benefit their well-being outside of software updates. After all, Grygiel said, technology platforms are mostly concerned with the monetization of data.
One of the main ways a user can benefit their mental health, Grygiel added, is by reducing their time spent on social media.
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“It’s really on the user to choose between setting up a public profile or a private one,” Grygiel said, pointing out that a user can also control how many profiles they have on certain platforms.
Grygiel said that it has become second nature to share aspects of our lives online — but that’s not necessarily helpful for everyone. If Instagram is making you feel bad about yourself or others, it may be time to evaluate your engagement.
“If you’re having a lot of social anxiety, you can step back and ask yourself: ‘Do I like sharing information? Do I want to share this information?'” Grygiel said.
“We don’t, ultimately, have to share any information.”
The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Depression Hurts and Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868 all offer ways of getting help if you, or someone you know, may be suffering from mental health issues.
— With files from Maham Abedi