Instead of letting Instagram control my mental health.
When I first got Instagram, I wasn’t sure what you were meant to use it for. It was 2010, and I was 16. I lasted on the platform about two months, and then I stopped using my account.
Fast forward to 2015, and I was in my last semester of university. Instagram was being mentioned enough across the rest of the internet that I started fearing missing out. So I hopped back onto the platform, with a fresh account, and tried to figure out how to use it.
I went through my Facebook account to login, so I immediately started following everyone I had on Facebook as was recommended. I then googled a few lists of ‘Instagrammers you should follow’ and added the people who looked good. I went on the Explore page and followed a bunch more people who were on there, randomly (or not so randomly) selected based on my current media footprint.
I realised that I was probably following some people I would lose interest in, but I stopped using the app a few years earlier because I had no content on my feed- there was no point of logging on to see the same photos I had already seen on Facebook.
So I ended up with beautiful influencers in spotless, spacious houses, fitness bloggers, a handful of celebrities and whoever from my thousand friends on Facebook was signed into the platform. It was a recipe for disaster.
It’s been well documented that social media can be bad for mental health. The same fear of missing out that made me rejoin Instagram is exactly what the platform is known for. My research for this article keeps linking back to a 2017 study by the Royal Society for Public Health where it ranked Instagram last in the detrimental effect on mental health in young people. (‘Young people’ was defined as 14–24 by the way- stretching a good distance past teenagers into people in post-graduate programmes or the best part of a decade into a career potentially.)
Two of the areas Instagram ranked the worst in were body image and FOMO. I was firmly in that category. A 2018 study found that, “young adult women who engaged with an attractive peer on social media subsequently experienced an increase in negative body image”. My Instagram feed was full of beautiful people. Not even beautiful people who I saw on a regular basis in real life so I’d be able to notice their pimples or hair out of place.
Then in 2016, Instagram introduced their algorithmic timeline. My favourite analysis of it is from a 2018 article by Alex Hern in the Guardian:
Rather than presenting users with a cross-section of what the people they were following were up to at any given moment, Instagram began populating feeds with the most noteworthy posts from those accounts, often reaching back days or even weeks to pull in particularly compelling content. In effect, the service began promoting a curated, unrealistic version of an already curated, unrealistic feed.
The updates I was receiving from the people I had pulled from Facebook on the original log in- people selected not by whether I interacted with them at all, but just on the basis of being on the platform- were even more idealised. I never missed an engagement photo of someone I worked with overseas one summer in university, but I’d regularly miss a photo of a close friend on a walk in the park.
At one point, I tried to do a ‘purge’. And at least with Instagram, unlike Facebook, you have a single list of people you can unfollow with two taps without leaving the list. But I was following over 500 accounts. I didn’t have a free afternoon to wade through them all. Besides, usually, I didn’t realise how crappy Instagram was making me feel until after I closed the app. I didn’t want to be that woman who couldn’t congratulate their friend, or relative, or ex-colleague when they had a life victory, even if it made me feel like I was missing all the milestones. Sometimes I only realised what effect it was having when I was getting ready for bed and saw a glimpse of myself in a full-length mirror and thought, “wow, she’s really let herself go.” Instagram was making me feel fat, lazy and pessimistic about my future.
A few years later, I’ve switched a lot around. Most days now, when I go on Instagram, I come away feeling more relaxed, empowered and ready to take on the world. I’ll say now, I’m not there yet. Maybe it would be better for my mental health to quit it altogether. However, I’m not there yet, so here’s some things that have worked for me in the process of breaking my Instagram habits down and building them up again.
- Acquaintances. I just didn’t need to see photos from any more weddings I wasn’t going to or holidays I couldn’t afford. Besides, these weren’t even people I would see in real life or send a card to as congratulations. It was just fuel to make me feel like I was punching below average in life.
- Celebrities who don’t share my values. Models advertising teabags with laxatives in. Singers who post about their love of right-wing politics. People who rave about dictators or their cities built on the backs of slaves. I read enough news and have enough discussions on Facebook to see these views. I didn’t need them under beautifully made up faces.
- Guilt tripping accounts. This category would look completely different for anyone, but is basically made up of accounts which you follow to remind you of all the ways you are failing. For me it was fitness bloggers doing home workouts which I followed to make me feel bad about not going to the gym. It didn’t make me go to the gym more, it just made me feel shamed. Other accounts that fit into here: local musicians touring open mike nights, meticulous cleaning accounts, perfect bullet journalers.
- Close friends. This took a bit of work, but if I didn’t follow close friends, I would ask them IRL what their Instagram handle was, find them and follow them. Then I could compliment their photos when I saw them in person, tag them in hilarious photos or be triggered by an engagement photo to send a card.
- Creatives I love. I started actively looking out for links to Instagram accounts of illustrators, bloggers or comedians I loved, and quite often their Instagrams were filled with nuggets of the same stuff I loved elsewhere.
- Causes I believe in. Body positivity, mental health, ethical shopping, vegan food, disability awareness, environmental activists, Instagram has a bunch of accounts which have educated me and inspired me to do better and feel better about myself.
- Hilarious celebrities. The kind of people who make you laugh or believe the world is a better place.
- Great role models. To make me dream bigger.
- Local(ish) tourist board. So I would be inspired to travel closer to home, and be reminded of what a beautiful country I live in.
- Spirituality close to me. To bring me back to the beliefs which uplift and challenge me in a positive way.
- Out of the mainstream stories. These accounts tell me stories I never thought about before.
I had a great time looking through my following list just now for this article, and trying to pick which accounts summarise the key things I follow now. A lot of them fit into more than one category. There were so many powerful women and fantastic activists shouting about the things that are important to them.
It wasn’t a quick leap to get to where I am at. Even today, I unfollowed an account which I realised just made me feel insecure and discovered that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez actually has two Instagram accounts- double the inspiration.
Some days, I don’t go on at all. I’m struggling to function or get out of curling up in a ball on my bed and reach out to someone I love to get some support. Even the best Instagrams are going to remind my vulnerable brain that others can get up and take photos and write captions fit for posting online.
But where I’m at is a damn good place for me to start.