The cursor blinks monotonously up at you. A prized photo needs an even better caption. A witty comment jumps to mind and your thumbs rapidly jot it down before you hit the arrow and send your latest photo into the world. Refresh, refresh, refresh. Two likes in two minutes. Not good enough. Your followers aren’t nearly as impressed with you as you had hoped. You hit delete before anyone else can see your embarrassment of a post.
With over one billion users worldwide, Instagram has quickly become one of the most popular social networking platforms since its launch in 2010. What once began as a playful, creative way to connect with friends has steadily morphed into a massive media platform. Today, the app creates new career opportunities, groundbreaking means of marketing, activism outlets, and other undeniably positive experiences. Devan McClain’s article about the good side of social media highlights many of these pros. But even with these encouraging aspects of Instagram comes an even higher standard to be at the top of your “Instagram game. As followers add up, so does the pressure to show off the best version of yourself, even if it’s a completely unrealistic one. After all, If you’re going to let so many people into your “life,” why wouldn’t you want to show them your best one?
First comes the tedious game of earning more and more followers to create the idea of status. Then comes with the task of posting content that creates the perfect first impression of yourself. “I feel pressure to put my face forward and not just in the traditional ‘put out the photo you look the best in,’ but to uphold a reputation. I post less and less, because what I post has to be okay for 1,000 people to see,” says Emma Hilary Gould (‘19), an Instagram user since 2012.
You’re scrolling through your feed and stumble upon a new account. You click on the profile and are welcomed into their feed. With over 60,000 followers, the person that smiles brightly back up to you has clear skin, consistently perfect hair days, the most popular clothes, and seems to always be on vacation. Their feed as a whole looks like a curated museum of their life and every picture compliments the next. You swoon over the idea of this person’s life as you click back to your own profile and are severely underwhelmed by your own. You delete that picture at your friend’s birthday, and the landscape photo that didn’t quite get enough likes in attempt to clean up your feed and in turn, “clean up” your life.
“I think there’s a lot of pressure in general to have a good looking social media page. It’s almost a competition. I try not to compare myself to others but it’s hard when there are so many out there. I constantly remind myself that a social media page is not the real portrayal of someone’s life. No one wants to show their lows to the world,” says Instagram user Jackie Settele.
As Instagram grows in popularity, a rising pressure and anxiety settles on user by user. In early 2017, the Royal Society for Public Health conducted a survey of almost 1,500 fourteen to twenty four year olds from across the UK, asking them to score how each of the social media platforms impact several health and wellbeing-related issues. Instagram scored the lowest and most negative. Instagram is linked to anxiety and depression, and it’s easy to see why. The photos of those you follow that show up on your feed are just begging you to compare yourself with other people’s’ content, editing skills, friendships, vacations, looks and overall life, and when you post you’re letting each of your followers in, whether you know them or not.
Suddenly, you’re only sharing that photo if it matches the color scheme of the rest of your feed. You only post between 6pm and 10pm to optimize your likes. “My logic is that usually people are out at work or school during the day and at night they catch up to look at their social media, so that’s when the most people are online,” explains Settele. You abide by the “follow less people than follow you” rule like it’s the law to prove your popularity, and when you go out, you’re scanning the room for any photo op because “pics or it didn’t happen.”
As a fellow Instagram user, Reed Leader (‘20) notices the subliminal competition from account to account from a distance. “I see people caring so much about their feed and I think it’s stupid. It takes over people’s lifestyle. If they go to the beach they’re so focused on getting the best picture with their friends instead of spending time in the moment.” Leader chooses to share photos to show people what he’s up to or things he likes, rather than for the sole purpose of likes and aesthetics.
The pressure to present oneself in a certain way comes from all angles. It trickles down from celebrities and influencers, with their professional grade photos that “inspire” you to want to achieve the unattainable. It swells as you compare your friends’ accounts to your own, whether it’s in follower count or in the content they post and the life they lead. Gould comments, “since Instagram is the one thing you can curate to look exactly how you want it to look, there’s a feeling of ‘why wouldn’t you?’”
And so while Instagram is a groundbreaking tool in social connectivity, it also becomes a breeding ground for a lot of unhealthy behaviors. With nearly 7,000 followers and counting, Isabelle Todd posts a variety of content, some of which includes sponsored brand deals.
Todd considers herself in, “the minor of minor leagues as far as Instagram influencing,” but that’s how she likes it. “I think a lot of people don’t feel comfortable admitting that something as pathetic as Instagram can make them feel stress, anxiety and question their own confidence but it’s actually really common,” says Todd, who says that she too used to care way too much about Instagram.
“I think the biggest thing is that, when you start to feel like that, to just take a step back and realize really how laughable it is to feel insecure over something as trivial as a specific Instagram post, comment, or account. I think that becoming obsessive with something like Instagram is a symptom of being unhappy with some other aspect of your own life,” says Todd.
With a larger than average following, you would think the pressure of posting would be on, but Todd has been able to take a step back and look at the app use as a whole. She touches upon one of the most important things to remember when putting your life online: Instagram is only meant to highlight aspects of one’s life, not its entirety. “To my friends and people that know me, I am not the girl in the picture I posted where I am sitting perfectly on my family’s sailboat smiling, but rather the girl who, thirty seconds before that photo, slipped and fell and is laughing about it,” jokes Todd.
So while it’s true that we live in the digital age and that every day we are connecting with more and more people, what you and the people you follow share is truly just a representation of you and their best parts. “I have had so many people tell me that I am nothing like what I come off on Instagram and I think that I could easily get really offended by that but I honestly take that more as a compliment. I hope I am more real in real life!” says Todd.
And that’s just it. In real life, there are no filters, heavy saturations, or spot perfecting tools. You are seen through more than just one frame at a time and it’s not always at the most flattering angle or where you look like you are loving every second of your life. Your Instagram profile isn’t capturing those days where you sit at home in sweats doing nothing extraordinary. It’s important to realize that that goes for your friends, followers, and professional influencers you follow. Getting caught up in the measuring your highs to other people’s lows and your lows to other people’s highs will always be a losing game.
Todd offers one last piece of advice: “Instagram isn’t real life and it never will be. It’s a lot more fulfilling being happy with your actual life then with your Instagram account. Be more concerned with why you are upset over not getting a certain amount of likes or followers rather than being upset over not getting that number of likes or followers.”
Written by Grace Castonguay
Artwork by Chloe Jackson