Instagram is responding to criticism about its platform and how it affects users’ mental health.
The company has become an industry forerunner with heavy engagement among young people, and it has the best projected growth of any social media platform. However, some consumers are moving away from social media over concerns that it hurts their relationships and emotional well-being.
New studies show that social media may be damaging, particularly to young people.
Mental health issues have risen significantly over the last decade and the rise of digital media may be one reason why, according to a national survey released Thursday.
The research, published by the American Psychological Association, found sharp increases in the number of young adults and adolescents who reported experiencing negative psychological symptoms — specifically in those born in 1995 or later, known as iGen. Coincidentally, the greatest spike in symptoms occurred in 2011, around the same time social media burst onto the scene.
No corresponding increase was observed in older adults.
Instagram is responding by introducing tools and formats to combat bullying and relieve the pressure that some users feel. In one big test, it’s removing public displays of “likes” on posts, aiming to ease competition and protect users’ sense of self-worth.
Head of Instagram Adam Mosseri told BuzzFeed that the aim of the trial, which will roll out first in Canada, is about “creating a less pressurized environment where people feel comfortable expressing themselves.”
Specifically, the trial seems geared towards people measuring their self-worth against their Instagram engagement. “We do hear people worry about how many like counts they get,” Mosseri said.
He added that the inspiration for the test came from Instagram’s Stories feature, where users can see their engagement metrics but they are not displayed to other users.
Though many applaud social media companies’ efforts to address mental health on their platforms, some researchers believe the problem won’t be fixed merely with minor changes.
Though shielding like counts might curtail strategic efforts to punch up engagement numbers on Instagram, other troublesome aspects like social exclusion won’t be addressed with the change, said Karen North, a professor at the University of Southern California with expertise in social media and psychology. Young people might still feel left out, or worse, if they see their friends posting from parties and other social events without them, and then read the comments that follow. Neither is directly tied to likes, she said.
Hiding the counts could potentially introduce new problems for users, such as diminishing the feeling of camaraderie from liking a popular post tied to a social cause or a massive in-joke. “While we can focus on the negative side of comparing likes, it is also true that people enjoy the game of supporting a post, a friend or an influencer,” she said.
Others assert that removing “likes” could drastically change the platform, perhaps for the better.
It’s unclear if the company will roll the test out more broadly, but I would love to test this. Although likes can be mood-boosting and encouraging to users, they can also bring them down, especially if content doesn’t perform well. At the same time, likes can incentivize less interesting content and facilitate like-garnering posts, like nudity, food porn, and classic Instagram-bait scenes. Getting rid of likes could fundamentally change the platform.
Instagram seems committed to making changes and has announced other features to curtail bullying and encourage users to take a break from social media when they feel particularly vulnerable.
One of the more interesting anti-bullying measures that Instagram is experimenting with aims to stop harassment before it even starts.
In some test cases, if the platform notices a user is about to leave a negative comment, the app will “nudge” that user, giving them a warning before they’re able to post.
The feature won’t stop them from leaving a comment; however, the extra step could provide the person with the opportunity to stop and think about what they’re posting.
Instagram is also experimenting with the ability to manage specific types of interactions with individual users. For example, a user can block an account from commenting, but still allow them to view posts. Instead of a user outright blocking someone, they can also specify what they want to limit from this person, down to how much they’re allowed to interact with them.
Another feature Instagram is testing out is a new “away mode.” The goal with this feature is to give users a break when they’re going through a difficult time in their lives, such as a breakup. It gives users a chance to step away from Instagram activity and notifications temporarily, instead of needing to delete their account.
Instagram’s move is part of a trend toward reimagining the user experience.
Instagram isn’t alone in trying to tamp down on the seemingly endless quest for likes and new followers. Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey said last week that if he could build his social network anew, he would rethink its emphasis on likes and retweets as markers of success. In a prototype of the Twitter app, dubbed twttr, the company is experimenting with removing like and retweet counts by default. Unlike the current version of Twitter, which displays those figures for each post, the beta app only shows the metrics when a user taps the tweet.
The Instagram experiment comes as Facebook prepares to update its entire suite of apps. People will soon be able to communicate using Messenger on their desktops, and the company has plans for users to chat with each other across all of its services. Facebook’s famed namesake app also is set for a redesign, with the service orienting itself away from the news feed and toward groups and private messages.
The power of social media to influence lives and drive awareness might very well depend on these companies’ efforts to clean up their online communities.
What do you think of Instagram’s proposed changes?