So this week, Instagram has rolled out a sweeping trial across Australia & New Zealand (and a few other places) that’s created a lot of fanfare (and some furor from some grumpy influencers).
In this trial, they’re eliminating the display of “likes” from people’s posts, in an effort to “remove pressure” that might contribute to poor self-esteem and feelings of inadequacy in users. But why is the “like” count the culprit? And will it even make a difference?
Since the explosion of social media apps over the past decade, psychologists have begun researching into how the use of these apps might impact our psychological wellbeing – and why. With levels of anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide on the rise among adolescents and young adults in recent years, psychologists have investigated how social media use might play a part. It’s true that people who spend longer on these apps tend to report feeling worse about themselves and generally feel more stressed & anxious.
A 2016 study by Pounders, Kowalcsyk & Stowers from the University of Texas found that self-esteem was a key motivator behind posting selfies to social media. But for those who didn’t get as many “likes” as they anticipated, their self-esteem took a turn for the worse. This self-esteem blow has been largely attributed to something called Social Comparison theory. It suggests that people tend to judge their own worth based on how they measure up against others who appear to be doing better or worse than they are. It’s shaped around our innate drive for status, hardwired way back when our ancient, tribal ancestors sought to claim higher status positions, meaning greater social support, more safety, less stress and higher chance of survival.
200, 000 years later, we’re still hustling for status – and we do lots of crazy shit to get it – from buying ridiculous luxury cars that look like squashed bugs to exposing ourselves to national ridicule on reality television shows, to posting piccies of ourselves on the internet.
The social feedback element of “likes” is another important element, as we’ve also evolved to prioritize social inclusion and acceptance – almost as much as food, water and shelter. So when we feel like other people are outranking us “likes-wise”, we’re copping a major status blow, and triggering parts of our brain that are sensitive to social discord and potential ostracism – ask anyone about the visceral feelings experienced after they’ve posted something abominably stupid to the internet, and the online mob descends.
This can leave us feeling stressed, anxious and cause our feelings of self-worth to plummet.
Now while some people might be ruthlessly driven to say “Well, just harden the f*ck up” or “get off the internet” – it’s not always that simple. These apps are built to be as addictive as poker machines, and psychological reactions are deep-rooted and die hard. And while we can actively work on strengthening these parts of our mind to be less vulnerable, the truth is that there are so many of us using these apps. Some people are inevitably going to feel the hurt – and it will likely be the young, less resilient folk at risk.
Losing the “like” count will hopefully make Instagram users somewhat less vulnerable to these negative effects, and perhaps allow people to be creatively bolder and less approval-seeking in their posting habits. We’re keen to see how it all pans out. And in the meantime, follow us for some Insta nourishment, unbound by “likes” at @the_indigo_project