A report published in 2017 by an independent UK health education charity named Instagram the social media platform that most negatively impacts the mental health and wellbeing of 14-24 year olds. After surveying nearly 1500 people in this age group, the Royal Society for Public Health ranked the platforms from healthiest to least healthy. The results were as follows:
- YouTube (Healthiest)
- Instagram (Least Healthy)
To me, it made sense that the platforms primarily designed for personal photo sharing made up the bottom three. What I was interested in was how Instagram ended up dead last with Facebook being so similar in nature. This led me to wonder if the distinct ways in which the users interact with each other on these two platforms had something to do with this.
On both platforms, users have some control over their own privacy settings (learn more about Instagram’s or Facebook’s), meaning that they can choose how much is visible to the public and what is restricted to only their “friends” (on Facebook) or “followers” (on Instagram). By becoming friends with someone or following someone, you will see their content on your own feed, gain access to any content they keep restricted, and often be able to better communicate with them via direct messages. Although the setup seems similar, friends and followers are two very different types of relationships.
Friends versus Followers
With Facebook, “friends” are a mutual relationship. For example, I can send a friend request to my neighbor. If she accepts it, she sees what I post, and I see what she posts. Until both parties agree to becoming “friends” neither person will see the other person’s content on their own feed.
In contrast to this, “followers” are not a mutual relationship. This means that I can follow Tom Brady and see everything Tom Brady posts on my feed. However, unless he follows me (which sadly is unlikely), he will not see what I post. I think this type of relationship can be problematic, especially for younger users of the app, and I’ll explain why.
Privacy versus Popularity
Having lots of likes and followers on your Instagram account is a goal for many users, adults and children alike. It makes sense: a high follower tally literally means that more people find your life interesting and want to know what you are up to. It is a quantitative form of approval—something craved by adolescents especially. In Instagram’s Parents’ Guide to Instagram, they acknowledge that “for many kids, part of the fun of Instagram is developing a big following.” While they note that parents might what to discuss this with their kids, they don’t seem to believe there is anything inherently wrong with this.
Nevertheless, when the goal is to have as many followers as possible, it incentivizes poor privacy practices. Instagram has fewer privacy options than Facebook: the only choice is whether your account will be public or private. While anyone can view and follow a public account, the only users that have access to a private account are ones that have been approved by the account owner. A private account may seem like a good way to ensure privacy, but users who have private accounts often allow people they don’t know to follow them for the sole purpose of upping their follower count. There is even a market for buying fake Instagram followers.
In its parent guide, Instagram staffers softly argue that this isn’t a problem because in our social media-centered world, true privacy does not exist. For example, even if a user is very careful about the privacy of their own account, a friend of theirs who is less careful could still post a photo of the user on the friend’s unprotected account. Essentially, privacy is out of our control.
I can see that perhaps Instagram is right about the nonexistence of “true privacy,” but that doesn’t mean we should dismiss privacy as unimportant. Parents especially should actively prioritize knowing who has access to information about them or their children
Pressure for Perfection
Lack of privacy is not the only problem that stems from tallying followers. If a 14-24 year old has an account with 1000+ followers, many of whom they do not know in real life, there is a lot of pressure to be perfect. Every time a user posts a picture, they know exactly how well it is received based on the number of likes they get. This is yet another quantitative form of approval. Because of this, most pictures posted on Instagram are impossibly perfect—taken in only the most fun places, with the most insta-worthy outfit, and then edited to eliminate any remaining flaws. This process can be detrimental to the mental health of both the user and their followers who compare themselves to this unrealistic ideal. Many users of the platform feel pressure to display this perfect version of themselves, even if that version has little resemblance to their day-to-day self.
Regaining Privacy: The Finsta
It was in this pressure-filled environment that the finsta was born. A finsta, short for “fake Instagram,” (also called a private or an alt, short for “alternative account") is the younger generation’s response to the anxiety and lack of privacy present in their overly-followed Instagram accounts. As a relatively recent phenomenon, many teens have created finstas: a second Instagram account with access limited to close friends. For context, finstas normally have under 100 followers while rinstas (aka real Instagrams or the main account) often have over 1000. The emergence of these very-private accounts can be viewed as an attempt to regain intimacy in a space where it was lost. Adults have differing opinions on whether the finsta is something good or bad.
From my perspective, it has the potential to be both. The cons tend to come to mind first. Finstas are parent and adult free (generally parents are unaware that their child even has another account as the names are well disguised). Because of this, finstas often document adolescents’ first experiences with alcohol or drugs. While these posts may be embarrassing, users often enjoy the attention they get from posting them because it shows that they are reckless, independent, or having more fun.
With followers limited to only people they consider close friends, finsta account holders also tend to overshare, go on rants, and talk trash about people who are not permitted to be followers. They tend to forget that just because the person they gossip about isn’t a follower of the account does not mean the post won’t reach them via a screenshot made by someone who is a follower. The same goes for videos or pictures related to drugs and alcohol that the users didn’t intend for anyone but their closest friends to see.
It’s also been noted that some use their finsta as an anonymous account to cyberbully other users by commenting negatively on their real Instagram accounts from their finsta. Though I have not seen this in my personal use of Instagram, I can see how an account not clearly associated with an identity has the potential to be dangerous. Anonymity leads to riskier behaviors because the user feels less accountable for their actions.
An Opportunity to Improve Wellbeing
So how can this fake account be good? I’ve already discussed the privacy problem with the real Instagram having too many followers that the user doesn’t know well or perhaps even at all. With their finsta account, they know every single follower. They also feel comfortable breaking the veil of perfection that they feel has to be present on every post on their real Instagram. The filters come off in more ways than one. Not only are they not using a filter as a photo-editing tool, but they can also say what they really feel. On finstas, users can be silly, sad, angry, and frustrated. They can be themselves. The finsta world is as authentic as it gets in this respect. Users aren’t pretending to be someone they’re not (except, perhaps if they’re trying to show that they party more than everyone else).
In May 2015, ESPN published a story about a female runner who committed suicide during her freshman year in college. After the fact, it was revealed that many close to her had how idea how much she was struggling, and part of the reason was that her Instagram account was portraying her as a happy, beautiful, and successful student athlete. While this may be dangerously common with real accounts, the finsta makes it possible for users to feel comfortable enough post their tear-filled selfies and share their troubles or calls for help.
When sitting at home scrolling through your Instagram feed, it’s easy to slip into the mindset that everyone else is more attractive and having more fun. It’s easy to forget that like you, everyone else displays their best possible self on Instagram, creating an unrealistic display of desirable lifestyles. Good finsta posts have the power to disrupt these feeds, reminding you that there is often a big difference between real people and their “real” Instagram accounts.
So, yes, I do think having “followers” opposed to having “friends” could be part of what makes Instagram more detrimental to mental health than Facebook, but there are other factors to consider. For one, the age group that the study follows tends to be more active on Instagram than on Facebook. Because teens and young adults will spend more time on it and post more than they do on Facebook, it’s more likely to have a bigger impact on them.
As far as making Instagram a more positive experience, there seems to be an ideal balance somewhere in between a finsta and a rinsta. An account where a user knows all of their followers but has enough followers so that they feel accountable for what they post might be best. Nevertheless, that’s not how teens use Instagram, and that likely won’t change.
More Education: A Call to Action
So what should we do? The Royal Society for Public Health published their own call to action which included a few notable objectives: one is that they want notifications to appear when users are spending too much time on the app, something Apple has announced they plan to debut in iOS 12. The listed objective that I think has the potential to make the largest impact is that of adding social media safety education into school curriculums. While I had a bit of this type of education, most of it regarded not giving up your address and other personal information online to avoid being kidnapped. It is important to learn what needs to be kept private, but it certainly is not the only—nor even the most pressing—problem surrounding adolescent’s use of social media platforms.
Similar to present day reforms in sex-ed, we ought to think about changing the way we educate about social media. Good education should not limit itself to a list of don’ts. It should explain why certain actions can be dangerous and who it impacts, along with providing list of do’s. Adults are quick to frown upon finstas and thus fail to see the power in them. Having grown up in a social-media-centered environment, this generation of teenagers craves safety, intimacy, and authenticity; finstas are their mature attempt at achieving these notions. While the movement is not without its flaws, it’s important that parents and educators harness this energy. Instagram has the potential to be a powerful tool for self expression and to convert its impact on younger users from negative to positive. Having more conversations about self-identity and how it translates onto social media will have a meaningful impact on the growth and wellbeing of these adolescents.