Many popular Instagram users devote a shocking level of meticulousness to their Instagram feeds, ensuring all their pictures possess the same colours, textures, and content that look good together to fit their “themes.” There are strict foodie Instagrams and lifestyle Instagrams, and everything from monochrome to pastel feeds, all obsessively manicured with an eye for detail nearing on spooky. On Instagram, you are not only showcasing the highlights of your life, like you would on Facebook, but doing so in a way that has to be aesthetically pleasing. While a casual family photo might bode well on Facebook, it would not receive the same amount of attention on Instagram. In order to be “Instagrammable”, the photograph would have to be edited and filtered to fit the aesthetic of the feed—and, preferably, not showcase a casual family gathering at all, but rather an impressive cityscape or an artistically-shot cup of coffee.
As a social media platform that seems to be obsessed with perfection, it is not surprising that some users and writers have spoken out against Instagram. With a quick Google search of “Instagram and mental health,” it is evident that bashing Instagram is almost as popular as the app itself, with writers criticizing Instagram for its negative effects on self-esteem and mental health, among other things. But are critics and the media painting a false narrative about Instagram and the people who use it, or should we really utilize more caution when it comes to consuming and contributing to Instagram?
A Platform Obsessed with Perfection
Scott Markle, a University of Toronto architecture student who runs a lifestyle Instagram with close to 1000 followers, explored topics about the promotion of a fake self on Instagram and its relation to self-esteem for a school project, which he ended up posting about on Instagram.
“For me the choosing and promoting of certain images is akin to writing an essay, or completing a studio project, you want to share work that is not only meaningful to you but also the best after numerous editing sessions, this is comes from a respect for yourself but also for the attention that is given to you from the audience who is engaging in the content you share,” says Markle.
Markle says that Instagram does not demand a need for order and perfection, rather a certain level of “embellishment”.
“I like to think of it as if you were at a party and you had just met someone people and you were trying to tell a good story, how would you alter it to best highlight your features,” says Markle.
However, Markle adds that a lot of other Instagram users he knows “do a lot of the crazy day to day things” that most non-Instagram users would be surprised about. Markle goes on to say that he’s become hyperaware of the little details that can “make or break a post” when it comes to angles and editing, but also how the content is communicated through captions.
Is Instagram Breeding a New Generation of Narcissists?
A 2016 study recruited 154 Instagram users, over 90 per cent of them university students, to debunk whether Instagram really does promote narcissism or if media claims are over exaggerated. The study mentioned previous research that linked Instagram usage to “narcissistic tendencies.” For example, the selection and editing process behind an Instagram photo can be used to show an enhanced version of your life, which correlates with narcissistic traits like attention-seeking and vanity. Additionally, most narcissists do not keep close relationships with others despite still seeking a social life, which is reflected through the impersonal liking and commenting features on Instagram. Instagram users who use hashtags to expose their pictures to more people also exhibit the narcissistic trait of self-promotion.
However, the study itself found that there was a weak link between Instagram and narcissism, suggesting that Instagram is not breeding a new generation of narcissists, but acts as a vessel for already narcissistically-prone users to express themselves. The researchers concluded that media claims about Instagram fostering narcissism are “somewhat exaggerated.”
Arjun Yadav, who recently graduated from the University of Toronto and runs a travel and photography Instagram with over 2000 followers says that he uses Instagram as a means of sustaining his hobby, rather than constructing a brand he’s trying to promote. “I can certainly see professionals, who are heavily invested into the social media platform, getting concerned about their brand image, and also more narcissistic in certain cases,” says Yadav, “and the high number of likes on their pictures can reinforce this notion of narcissism.”
Jessica Lam, who documents her life in Toronto to almost 2500 Instagram followers, says that she’s become “more obsessed” with her brand because she’s trying to grow it alongside her blog. While a perfect Instagram persona is something many have condemned, Lam says showing confident-looking photos of herself has actually helped her come out of her shell.
Markle says that narcissism is ubiquitous in “most aspects of life,” and certainly can’t be downplayed when it comes to social media.
“I have become more aware through my obsession with Instagram with the conscious and unconscious curation of day to day, whether it is how I dress, or how I interact with a person/persons how to best highlight them,” says Markle. “That, however, I still need to work on as I become more comfortable with finding my own voice in the community.”
Our own cropped, filtered, and hashtagged photos are one thing, but what are the repercussions of consuming other users’ feeds?
Instagram and Self-Esteem
An article on Elite Daily referenced a study that showed Facebook users developed “depression, loneliness, resentment and lowered self-esteem,” particularly from the photo-sharing feature of Facebook, and compared it to the inevitable feelings of competitiveness and envy that creep up when exposed to a perfectly curated Instagram feed.
Lam admits to once feeling extremely self-conscious whenever she saw “super pretty girls” on her Instagram feed. However, she now chooses to focus her energy on more productive feelings and says Instagram has actually positively affected her self-esteem.
“I see Instagram as a place for self expression and I spend a lot of time curating my feed, so receiving positive feedback and compliments is a huge confidence booster for me,” says Lam.
Yadav echoes Lam’s sentiments. “As a photographer, Instagram has definitely encouraged me to compare myself to others but in a positive manner, as I look at other photographers on Instagram for motivation, and how and where I can improve my work,” says Yadav, adding that he tries to learn the techniques and skills that make a picture better than his own, rather than feel jealous.
Instagram’s Effects on Our Lives
Many critics of Instagram have also expressed concerns that users are so obsessed with perfectly capturing their lives that they forget to enjoy them. Lam tries to prioritize “enjoying the moment” rather than worrying about taking the perfect shot, and limits herself to 10 minutes of photo-taking when she is out.
“[H]alf the time I don't even look at the photos until later, because I know I'll end up wanting to take even more,” says Lam.
The anxiety Yadav feels when trying to get a perfect picture during his travels has actually “forced” him to take better pictures, which he feels helped him build his portfolio.
FOMO is a familiar acronym that refers to the anxiety that everyone else but you is experiencing exciting things, or somehow has access to more happiness than you. Markle admits that FOMO could inhibit new Instagram users, but uses it to encourage himself to reach out to other creative Instagram users.
“[It’s] sort of like you seeing your friend running for a student position and feeling inspired by her opportunities to go out and do something as well,” says Markle.
Markle’s emphasis on collaboration lead to him meeting and shooting with other Instagram creators as far away as New York.
Through the myriad of responses and experiences of users who consume and contribute to Instagram, it is evident that the seemingly perfection-obsessed app can affect our lives in significant ways that are not simply limited to being good or bad, or safe or cautionary, or healthy or unhealthy. A diverse amount of possibilities and emotions can be accessed with just the click of a button—and a filter or two.