It’s going to take a lot more than hiding Instagram likes to fix teen girls’ self-esteem

The photo-sharing platform’s bid to improve the app’s toxic reputation is akin to putting a plaster on a bullet wound

Kimberley Bond
Saturday 05 June 2021 12:16
<p>Instagram ‘likes’ are often treated as a popularity contest</p>

Instagram ‘likes’ are often treated as a popularity contest

Having previously piloted the scheme to smaller groups, Instagram developers have announced that users can now hide “like” counts on their photos.

Clearly, developers are keen to give themselves a pat on the back for implementing this relatively small measure.

“We tested hiding like counts to see if it might depressurise people’s experience on Instagram,” the company explained in a statement. “This way, if you like, you can focus on the photos and videos being shared, instead of how many likes posts get.”

The changes to the photo-sharing platform, which can be turned on and off in settings, are certainly a step in the right direction – albeit a baby step.

The “like” system on social media has proven to be highly addictive, giving us a quick release of dopamine as we gain a glimmer of status with each thumbs up we receive.

Likes can be seen as a currency of popularity, a pointer to how pretty you are and how coveted your life is. It’s the horrors of high school in the palm of your hand: who’s cool, hot and interesting, only with nicer filters.

However, Instagram’s bid to improve the app’s toxic reputation is akin to putting a plaster on a bullet wound. The problems that Instagram have curated, exacerbated and contributed to run far deeper than “likes”.

When it was first conceived in 2010, Instagram started life as a check-in app called Burbn until developers Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger saw the popularity in sharing photos from users’ location, slowly becoming the iteration we know it as today.

The platform became hugely successful in a short space of time and now boasts 1.074 billion users worldwide – and where there are lots of people, there’s lots of money to be made.

Instagram monetised what initially appeared to be an achievable beauty. Now, it wasn’t just models who could cash in on their good looks, but ordinary people – the girl next door preening and posing could be as influential as a celebrity. The better they looked, the more followers they had – and the more opportunities that entailed.

It seems that Instagram’s app developers have fundamentally misunderstood what the app now is. It’s no longer a cutesy platform where you can show your mates that you spent the afternoon at Bournemouth beach. It’s now a misery business, where people who have carefully curated a particular image can make money off other people’s insecurities.

Essentially, Instagram is just not a nice place to be; managing to both be a toxic reminder that you could be thinner, prettier and busier, as well as a necessary means to interact with friends as our social lives are now digital by default.

Unsurprisingly, numerous studies have linked high social media use with poor mental health in young women.

In a survey of 1,500 people by Scope, half of participants aged 18 to 34 said social media made them feel unattractive. Elsewhere, a study done by universities in the UK and US on 881 female students found a link between time spent on social media and negative body image. The more time these young women spent on social networks, the more they tended to compare themselves to others, and feel negatively about their own appearance.

The 2017 #StatusofMind report by the Royal Society of Public Health scored Instagram the “worst” out of a number of social media platforms for giving teenagers poor body image and elevated anxiety, citing how the “unrealistic expectations” on the app contributes to feelings of inadequacy. As one survey respondent wrote, “Instagram easily makes girls and women feel as if their bodies aren’t good enough as people add filters and edit their pictures in order for them to look ‘perfect’.”

Things have only worsened during the coronavirus pandemic, with young people thought to be bearing the brunt of the measures imposed due to Covid-19. As a result of school being closed, university education being moved online and jobs being cut, many young people found themselves stuck inside, with social media usage rising to keep in contact and to kill time. Even at a time where gyms were closed and time outside was restricted, a study by Ofcom found that girls were still consuming more “body-conscious” exercise content, feeling pressure to remain fit and “look good” despite the global health crisis.

It’s little wonder, with the lack of things to do, the disruption to routine and the constant pressure to look hot, that the Royal College of Psychiatrists for a 28 percent rise in children and young people accessing mental health services compared to 2019.

With an increased societal knowledge of mental health and illness, it is reductive to attribute all the worries and pressures teenage girls face to Instagram. But with the app playing such a large role in so many young girls’ lives, we can’t deny how it has shaped teenagers’ wellbeing.

As we are all constantly bombarded with flattering, filtered and fundamentally fake images day in and day out, the notion of “keeping up with the Jones’s” is no longer just an expression, but a necessity as young girls are pushed to find new things about themselves to loathe – and then improve. And the mere act of hiding the number of likes their photos get won’t take that deep-rooted self-hatred away overnight.

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