Killing Instagram Likes: Will It Really Improve Users' Mental Health?

Pauline Anderson

November 14, 2019

The recent move by social media giant Instagram to make "like" counts private for some US users is getting a cautious thumbs-up from mental health experts who say it's a good first step in alleviating some of the psychological distress linked to social media use.

Many believe it may eliminate some of the tension and "toxicity" around the perception, particularly among younger users, that the number of Instagram post "likes" are an indicator of self-worth.

Research shows some young Instagram users report feeling like a failure and unpopular when their posts don't receive many "likes."

The change means Instagram users will still see who liked their post but "like" counts aren't visible to followers.

Reducing Psychological Stress

On November 8, Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri announced the move, reportedly saying the motivation behind it is to safeguard users' mental health and well-being.

"We will make decisions that hurt the business if they help people's well-being and health," Mosseri reportedly said when he made the announcement last week at Wired25, a conference that is focused on "experiences and conversations about the future and the use of tech for good."

Instagram first tested hiding likes from public view in Canada and subsequently expanded it to other countries, including Brazil, Ireland, Italy, Japan, and New Zealand, before testing the rollout in some US users last week. As of 2018, it is estimated that 105 million Americans use Instagram.

Recent research shows that Instagram and other social media platforms can have a positive impact on young people.

A 2017 survey conducted by the University of Chicago, in collaboration with the Associated Press, showed that among 790 American teens aged 13 to 17, 78% reported social media makes them feel closer to friends, 49% reported it makes them more informed, and 42% reported it helps connect them to family.

However, social media use can also leave youth feeling inadequate and unworthy. In the same survey, 15% of respondents reported feeling pressure to always show the best version of themselves, 10% reported experiencing information overload, and another 9% reported feeling overwhelmed or fearful of missing out.

The survey also showed that 58% of teens have taken a break from at least one social media platform.

Other research has linked social media use in youth to more serious mental health consequences, including depression and anxiety.

Many blame social media for feelings of isolation among young people. Suicide rates have increased by 30% in 30 years and National Institute of Mental Health data show suicide is now the second leading cause of death among people aged 10 to 34.

Several experts contacted by Medscape Medical News believe this initiative is a good first step in mitigating some of the psychological distress linked to social media use, but that more needs to be done to ensure users' mental health and well-being.

Dr Vinu Ilakkuvan

Experimenting with different changes to social media platforms and assessing their impact on mental health and well-being, especially of teenagers, has the potential to be helpful," Vinu Ilakkuvan, DrPH, George Washington University, Washington, DC, who has studied health risks linked to social media, told Medscape Medical News.

Changes that prove beneficial to mental health and well-being could be "scaled up and implemented widely across social media platforms," said Ilakkuvan.

However, she would like to know how Instagram and independent researchers plan to evaluate how hiding public "likes" impacts stress, depression, and other mental health outcomes.

Driven by Profit

In addition, Ilakkuvan noted that "likes" are just one aspect of the social media environment.

"The overall time spent on social media, exposure to advertising, the type of content shared by peers, comments from others, and a range of other factors can also contribute to negative mental health and well-being."

Ilakkuvan also cautioned against overestimating the value of voluntary tests by social media companies.

"At the end of the day, these companies are driven by profit, and will make more money the longer they keep users on their site," she said.

She would like more thought put into external regulations to help create a healthier social media environment.

"Trusting those who seek to make a profit from these platforms to self-regulate can only take us so far," Ilakkuvan said. 

Instagram's decision may reduce "approval anxiety," which can contribute more broadly to "digital distress," Ric G. Steele, PhD, professor and director of the Clinical Child Psychology Program at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, told Medscape Medical News.

Approval anxiety is the constant worry about responses and reactions of others to one's posts, photos, or other digital content, said Steele. 

"For example, some social media users will carefully craft and edit their posts to ensure a higher number of 'likes,' or they may post at particular times of the day in attempts to get more 'likes.' Others may remove online content out of concern that others will see that a post has few or no 'likes,' he added. 

However, Steele noted that individual users are still able to see and quantify the number of likes on his or her post, so they can still "take notice of others' approval of the content, which may do little to alleviate digital anxiety."

Steele said he is unaware of anyone experimentally testing the degree to which changing the public visibility of the "likes" impacts digital stress. "But conceptually, it stands to reason that decreasing the public quantifiability of 'likes' could lessen distress associated with approval anxiety."

Connected but Lonely

Sue Varma, MD, a psychiatrist in private practice and clinical assistant professor at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City, agrees there should be more research.

Dr Sue Varma

"We need to continue the conversation, follow the stats, survey more people about which features produce the most anxiety and then do longitudinal outcome studies," she told Medscape Medical News.

For Varma, the Instagram change "shows that stakeholders get the point and are trying to be responsible." However, like Ilakkuvan, she wants to see more social media companies follow Instagram's example.

Varma said she herself is on multiple social media platforms and feels the intense pressure "to keep up." She noted that social media can be very challenging for adults but it is an even greater challenge for youth.

Adolescents' brains are still developing, as is their sense of identity, and they face a myriad of social, academic and sexual pressures, said Varma.

"Teens shouldn't have to worry about their self-worth, in the real world or in cyberspace. Let social media be a place for expression, creativity, and connection, not competition," said Varma.

However, competition is exactly what some social media platforms seem to foster. Users take the number of followers and likes as an indication of how important or socially relevant someone is, Varma said, "without even looking at the quality of the feeds or whether the content makes them feel good."

"The 'likes' feature sets up the brain to become a social media junkie — your brain craves the hits and, for some people, it takes over their lives," she added.

While social comparisons have always existed, the Internet has pushed this phenomenon to new heights. "It's in your face, always accessible, 24/7."

Social media also affects relationships. Today's teens, she said, are constantly on social media and, as a result, they are losing the opportunity to develop critically important life skills, Varma added.

"It's clearly a paradox that we are more connected than ever before and yet lonely," she said.

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