The Instagram Effect on Mental Health

The Instagram Effect on Mental Health

Over a billion people spend 30+ minutes a day on Instagram.

But how do social media platforms affect mental health?

Research shows us that…

  • It’s ADDICTIVE.  It continually serves content…you just keep scrolling!

  • Social interactions play out differently online than they do in person.  “There’s something about the interactions occurring on social media that makes them qualitatively different from in-person interactions.  This introduces risks that were not there before, which are causing harm as a result,” said Mitch Prinstein, APA’s chief science officer.  

    • Things like likes, comments, views can be viewed forever and at any time

  • HOW you use social media certainly matters.  For instance, Instagram users who look for popularity online or whom use it to compare themselves against others tend to have more negative psychological outcome, including:

    • Increased depression

    • Increased social anxiety

    • Negative body image

    • Decreases in self-esteem

  • However, the opposite is also true.  When women viewed “body positive” posts, they reported improved mood, body satisfaction, and body appreciation.  

  • Some people, especially children and adolescents, don’t realize that they are comparing themselves against a very curated image of other, including posting edited photos.

    • One study (of 2,475 undergrad students) found that 1 in 3 women indicated that they edit photos of themselves before posting them.

      • This practice was also found to be associated with a higher incidence of eating disorder

    • These difficulties are not just in teenagers or women but are also seen in adults and men/boys.

  • As adolescence has such an emphasis on social connection and social relationships, much research is being directed at this age group.  There can be some positive impacts of social media.  Teens have reported that they can feel more connected to their friends, more included, and sometimes more confident.

    • Transgender or gender diverse teenagers often use social media to find out more information about their identities and to connect with others like them, especially in more rural areas.  On the other hand, however, transgender and gender diverse teenagers also report sometimes being bullied on social media about their identities.  

What does the brain have to say?

  • Brain areas that are linked to social rewards develop a significant increase in dopamine (a ‘feel good’ chemical in our brain) and oxytocin (sometimes called “the love drug” in our brain) receptors (meaning, our brains have a great ability to take these in).  This motivated teenagers to seek approval from their peers.  

  • Lauren Sherman, PhD, led an fMRI (measure brain activity) study that found that teenagers had increased activation in the reward areas of the brain when they were viewing Instagram-like photos that showed risky behaviors, like drinking and smoking.  The study also found that teen had decreased activation in the prefrontal cortex (which, amongst many other things, handles inhibition or stopping behavior).  

What can parents do:

  • Avoid banning or overly restricting social media, but have discussions with your children/adolescents about the potential dangers.  

  • Ask open-ended questions and keep the dialogue ongoing.

  • Encourage critical thinking about what they see online.  Research suggests that children and adolescents that have a stronger media literacy struggle less with self-esteem and body image.

  • Model healthy social media consumption

A great resource to check out is a documentary called, “The Social Dilemma.”  

Research is on-going for how social media impacts us all.  “Different people use social media in very different ways.  We need to understand what factors make some people more sensitive to experiences they have online- and how those experiences might impact psychological problems in the future,” says Jacqueline Nesi, an assistant professor at Brown University.

“Instagram’s Effects on Mental Health”

Monitor on Psychology

March 2022

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