Social media is a massive part of modern life. For instance, the average user spends a combined 50 minutes on Facebook, Instagram and Facebook Messenger in a typical day, according to company data from 2016. That’s significantly more than the 17 minutes the average American adult spends exercising daily, per 2012 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And as many of us have been warned, there’s a high chance this isn’t good for our psyches. Young adults who use social media more than two hours per day are 2.7 times more likely to be depressed, according to a 2016 study from the University of Pittsburgh.
While existing depression could be causing this social media use, research suggests the platforms themselves ― especially Instagram ― play a significant role: This year, a survey of 1,500 young people in the U.K. ranked Instagram as the worst social media platform for mental health, with participants citing increases in anxiety, depression and body image issues while using the app. Many experts blame social comparison, the effect by which social media users determine their own worth based on how they stack up against other ― oftentimes apparently skinnier, richer or more fun-loving ― people on their Instagram feeds.
But it’s not just young people who are affected by Instagram ― the UPitt study mentioned above dealt with adults up to age 32. And the harmful effects of Insta-envy likely don’t stop there, says Emily Weinstein, a Harvard University researcher who recently published her own study on Instagram use.
“Comparison doesn’t just happen in adolescents or jealous people. Events at every stage of life could give you that reaction,” she told HuffPost. For a self-conscious teen, seeing photos of flawlessly fit bloggers might ignite jealousy. For a single 20-something, images of happy couples could cause despair. “It can happen at any age.”
HuffPost spoke with psychology experts, most of whom agreed that avoiding Instagram entirely is unrealistic in our hyperconnected society. Instead, they offered tips for using the app in a way that leaves us healthier instead of harmed.
1. Unfollow accounts that don’t bring you joy.
Think of this as the KonMari method for your Insta feed: Next time you open the app to a particular photo, ask how the image makes you feel. Does that shot of your friend’s vacation make you feel dejected for sitting at your desk? Does the photo of your baby nephew give you a boost of feel-good fuzzies?
Keep in mind that the same image that produces a negative feeling for one person may bring about positive feelings for another, Weinstein said.
“For some people, [following] those design and decor blogs is very calming, and for others, the photos make them envious, because their homes don’t look like that,” she said. “We’re not going to all look at same content and have the same reaction.”
That’s why it’s important to evaluate for yourself which accounts bring you joy and which don’t, Weinstein said. While you can do this photo by photo each time you log in to the app, she says it’s more likely you already know which accounts inspire you and which make you feel jealous, sad or have an onslaught of FOMO.
“Most of us can figure out where to start [unfollowing accounts], and once you start, it becomes obvious and a habit,” she said. “It’s mindfulness. It’s elevating your awareness.”
If you can’t tell whether an account improves your mental state or not, Weinstein suggests unfollowing it for a few weeks and seeing if you miss it. You can always refollow later.
2. Bulk up the positive content.
While you’re at it, you may want to follow more accounts similar to the ones that make you feel good, Weinstein said. For many people, these are funny meme accounts or ones that deal with specific hobbies like travel or art.
3. Constantly remind yourself that people aren’t posting their real lives.
Sure, we all know that Instagram presents a filtered version of reality. But it’s critical to keep this top of mind while scrolling, said Brain Primack, lead author of the University of Pittsburgh study. We may subconsciously expect celebrity images to be altered but forget that our friends carefully choose and edit their photos, too.
“When we see [Instagrams of] a model or an [advertisement], we know that person ‘isn’t real,’ or that they’ve been Photoshopped,” Primack said. “But when you see your college friends having this wonderful life, you know them as real people, so you don’t think of the fact that they’re carefully curating what they put out there. It’s easy to think, ‘Hey, everybody else is having a great life and is more successful than I am. I have challenges.’”
In her study, Weinstein found that teens’ attitudes toward Instagram affected how they felt after scrolling through a feed. Those who kept in mind that the images were “curated and effortful” reported more positive emotions after viewing than those who took the feeds “more literally” and thus made harmful mental comparisons such as “that person’s life is better than mine.” Weinstein concluded that actively reminding teens about the curated nature of Instagram photos could leave them with a greater sense of well-being after scrolling. Do your brain a favor, and give yourself a similar reminder before you browse.
4. Post, like, comment and message more often.
Overall, we spend more time looking at social media (aka “passively viewing”) than we do responding to posts or creating our own (aka “actively viewing”). A 2015 study of Facebook habits found that participants used the site passively about 50 percent more than they used it actively. A subsequent study from researchers around the world found that passive use tended to produce damaging social comparisons and envy, while active use created feelings of social connectedness and friendship.
This means that commenting on and posting Instagram photos is preferable to mindless scrolling, said Philippe Verduyn, the study’s lead author and an assistant psychology professor at Maastricht University in the Netherlands.
“Merely looking at the pictures of your Instagram connections is not the way to go,” he said. “You may easily end up thinking that other people’s lives are much better than yours ... It is better to actively reach out to your online connections: engage with them, share pictures ― you will feel more connected to your online friends, as they are likely to actively respond to your posts as well.”
Of course, commenting on photos just as often as you look at them is a more involved task. But the potential results of doing so are worth considering.
5. Ask yourself the “five whys.”
Many users are familiar with the feeling of scrolling through an Instagram feed in order to avoid something, whether it be getting out of a cozy bed in the morning or working up the nerve to respond to a confrontational text message. Sometimes, guilt sets in when we realize just how long we’ve spent “killing time” on the app.
To reduce this feeling ― and to make your browsing experience more fulfilling overall ― it’s helpful to analyze precisely why you look at Instagram, according to Oscar Ybarra, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan who co-authored the study with Verduyn.
His “five whys” process involves asking yourself why you’re using Instagram (maybe it’s “because I’m bored waiting in line at the grocery,” for example), then asking into that answer again (“Why am I bored waiting in line? Because I’m not talking to the people around me.”) and again (“Why aren’t I talking to the people around me? Because I’m nervous to initiate conversation.”) until you’ve done it five times. The results could be revealing (“Next time, I’ll be bold and say hello to someone in line at the grocery.”).
“People should ask themselves why they are using [Instagram],” Ybarra told HuffPost. “Then, once they have their answer to the first why, they should interrogate this answer by asking ‘why’ again, and continue this process. Many times we log on to these sites mindlessly for distraction or to fill time, but we never confront ourselves and ask why we’re doing it.”