Instagram: A Disturbing Picture of Loneliness and Distorted Body Image?

The findings of a self-authored investigation into Instagram’s impact on teens’ mental health are startling. The researchers found that using Instagram made  “body image issues worse for one in three teen girls” and that “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression.” Moreover, the researchers uncovered a potentially disturbing connection between teens’ use of the app and having suicidal thoughts, finding 6% of American users indicated a connection between the two compared to 13% of U.K. users, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Karina Newton, Instagram’s head of public policy, stated in a blog “Many [users] said Instagram makes things better or has no effect, but some, particularly those who were already feeling down, said Instagram may make things worse. In the research world, this isn’t surprising or unexpected. Issues like negative social comparison and anxiety exist in the world, so they’re going to exist on social media too.”  

Instagram’s impact should not really come as a surprise. To begin with, Instagram has an extremely heavy digital footprint in the social media landscape, garnering 25% of the market, just behind Tik Tok and Snapchat, which lead the field. Part of the dynamic is of course the age of Instagram’s users. Unlike Facebook, the parent company of Instagram, Instagram users are overwhelmingly young. According to, more than 60% of Instagram uses are between the ages of 18-34, and approximately half of that group is between 18-24. Nearly 8% of users are between the ages of 13-17. 

And while Instagram does ask would-be users to enter their birthdays to create an account, it doesn’t take an active imagination to conjecture there are kids younger than the 13-year old threshold who use Instagram, nor is it a stretch to say these kids would be the most vulnerable to the pernicious effects of social media. 

In truth, this is not the first time Instagram has been in hot water over negative impacts on its users. Back in 2017, the #StatusOfMind survey, published by the United Kingdom’s Royal Society for Public Health, concluded that “Instagram is the worst social media network for mental health and wellbeing” and  “was also associated with high levels of anxiety, depression, bullying, and FOMO, or the ‘fear of missing out.’”

In reality, all social media platforms can and do have similar negative impacts upon their users. However, Instagram seems to be particularly impactful. So what gives? Part of the answer may be in how Instagram works. 

At the heart of Instagram is the ability to instantly share a variety of images and videos. This sense of immediacy may be the most compelling feature of Instagram; after all, the name of the app contains “Insta.” As Facebook themselves state, “Instagram is a place where teens and adults go to discover what’s new and what’s next. The platform holds unique appeal because it captures the immediacy of the moment, ignites creative expression, and provides a connection to a like-minded community.”

This sense of instant hyper-connectedness is likely connected to the phenomenon of  FOMO. In fact, recent research concluded that Instagram use is “found to be motivated by the desire to keep in touch with others and to ‘to keep up with or gain knowledge about what others (i.e., friends, family and strangers) are doing’.” 

The truth is that FOMO is changing not just the behaviors of the end-users of social media; it has become a primary tactic to avoid loneliness, or even worse, just the feeling of being alone for a few moments. Thanks to smartphones, we are only a click or two away from connecting to someone, somewhere. 

As psychologist John Grohol, who sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine, writes, “We are so connected with one another through our Twitter streams, Instagram updates, and Foursquare check-ins, through our Facebook and LinkedIn updates, that we can’t just be alone anymore. The fear of missing out (FOMO) — on something more fun, on a social date that might just happen on the spur of the moment — is so intense, even when we’ve decided to disconnect, we still connect just once more, just to make sure.” 

In essence, we are redefining loneliness. Whereas loneliness once meant, according to Webster’s dictionary,  “Having a feeling of depression or sadness resulting from the consciousness of being alone,” it could now be defined as  “the feeling that results from not being connected to someone or something, no matter how nominal, superficial, or brief, all the time.”

Emerging research indicates that social media may indeed play a role in causing feelings of loneliness. Pennsylvania psychologist Melissa G. Hunt conducted a study in which she divided users of social media apps into two groups.

The first group was asked to make no changes to their use of social media. The second group was asked to reduce their usage of social media. The results of the study found that the “. . . group who reduced their social media use experienced “significant decreases in depression and loneliness” and that the results were “particularly pronounced for folks who were more depressed when they came into the study.”Other studies have also found similar, negative impacts. 

But loneliness, which was also associated with feelings of anxiety and depression, were not the only negative findings correlated with Instagram use. Body image is also a central issue. Because Instagram is primarily a vehicle to stay connected through pictures and videos, it is image-driven.

When young people, especially young women and girls, are continually exposed to these images, they provide a sort of visual baseline for how a girl or woman should look. A recent survey found “A whopping 51 percent of women say their body compares unfavorably with media images, while only 37 percent of men say the same.” Other studies have shown that women are disproportionally and negatively affected

Making matters worse is the prevalent use of filters to alter images in ways that are more visually appealing. Such “digital airbrushing” is amplifying the already powerful impact that social media platforms, especially image-driven platforms like Instagram, can have on young people, especially teenage girls and young women. This phenomenon in turn is fueling mental- health issues associated with body image.

An article by the  Boys & Girls Clubs of America frames it this way: “A cultural obsession with airbrushed perfection and relatively simple digital means to manipulate one’s own images seem to be adding a new dimension to some cases of body dysmorphia, a mental health condition in which a person is consumed with thoughts about a perceived or imagined defect in their body.” 

This pursuit of the perfect image has led in turn to very young people seeking out the services of plastic surgeons to address their underlying sense of inadequacy, an inadequacy based on an often completely false sense of manipulated reality. As reported by CNN, Plastic surgeon Dr. Lara Devgan stated “. . .half of her patients now come into her practice with reference images of themselves that are either edited or filtered,” adding, “ Instead of asking for the nose or chin of a certain celebrity, patients are now largely bringing in edited photos of their own faces.” 

Moreover, in an opinion letter in JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery, researchers from Boston University concluded, “Overall, social media apps, such as Snapchat and Facetune, are providing a new reality of beauty for today’s society. These apps allow one to alter his or her appearance in an instant and conform to an unrealistic and often unattainable standard of beauty” adding, “It can be argued that these apps are making us lose touch with reality because we expect to look perfectly primped and filtered in real life as well.”

At the end of the day, it’s unrealistic to think that young people are going to suddenly swear off all usage of social media. For better or worse, these apps are part of the interconnected social landscape that informs the world and shapes the thoughts and behaviors of users. Still, clearly, the research by Instagram shows that there are problems we need to address.

We can start by examining how much time we actually spend on social media platforms. As Hunt puts it: “When you’re not busy getting sucked into clickbait social media, you’re actually spending more time on things that are more likely to make you feel better about your life. In general, I would say, put your phone down and be with the people in your life.” Amen. 

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