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Of all the major social media platforms, Instagram consistently ranks as the worst for mental health and well-being. In study after study, Instagram is linked to depression, anxiety, teen cyber bullying and the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO). Even worse, some mental health experts have linked heavy Instagram usage to increases in teen suicide rates. And, yet, Instagram still is doing nothing more than making a few incremental changes here and there to make the social platform safer from a mental health perspective. So what else should Instagram be doing to address mental health concerns?
#1: Provide “Heavy Usage” pop-up warnings
One recommendation, first made by the UK’s Royal Society for Public Health back in 2017 after its landmark “Status of Mind” survey of social media, is to force the major social media platforms to include a “heavy usage” pop-up warning. The reason here is simple: after just two hours of exposure to social media content, the first symptoms of anxiety and depression can start to appear. Think about it: if you’re staring at photos of holiday vacations, perfectly fit bodies, and amazing nights out on the town for hours at a time, it’s easy to see how all of that “perfection” on public display is going to start eroding some of your self-esteem.
The Royal Society for Public Health refers to the negative impact of too much social media usage as the “compare and despair” problem that is so prevalent among teens and young adults. Simply stated, if you are constantly comparing yourself to others, you are going to start feeling inadequate and have lower self-esteem. So, a “heavy usage” pop-up warning would help to mitigate some of this problem.
#2: Reduce any competition for “likes”
The competition for likes on social platforms like Instagram can be intense, so any actions that can help to reduce some of this competition can be a net positive. This is especially true for teens and young adults, where body image is so critical to overall mental health and well-being. Since Instagram is such a highly visual platform, the competition to post amazing photos of yourself in amazing outfits (or perhaps in nothing much at all) or in amazing places is especially high.
The really dark side of all this competition is a form of psychological trauma in which all efforts to produce likes end in failure. Mean-spirited teens often employ this tactic to keep others out of a certain clique, or to punish others by refusing to give a like. Imagine what it would feel like to work out for days and then post an amazing post-gym workout photo, but not to receive any likes. Or to post amazing photos of your wedding, and not get any likes. You might start to question yourself, to say the least (Your office co-workers are also probably guilty of employing this tactic from time to time – you KNOW that they’ve seen your post, but they refuse to give you a like for some perverse psychological reason!)
#3: Make social media education part of the academic curriculum in schools
The Royal Society for Public Health also suggested making “Safe Social Media Use” part of the academic curriculum in schools. In short-form courses, for example, teens would be coached on how to avoid bullying and how to get out of the whole “compare and despair” mental health trap. Since kids as young as age 10 are already using social media, this social media education could start at a very early age, helping tweens and teens manage their social media usage.
Of course, parents play an important role in all of this, not just the big social media platforms. Are you keeping track of your kids’ social media usage? Are you putting in place guidelines to make social media usage off-limits at certain times (e.g. no Instagram at meal times)? And do you know who is part of your child’s social network and how this social network differs from their real-world network? Answering any of these questions can help you spot the warning signals of mental health in advance, all while giving your child a safe way to discuss what they are seeing, reading and viewing on social media. If Instagram will not act, then parents and schools must.