Curious about the effects social media has on us, I reached out to psychologist Dr. Jennifer Guttman, PsyD, and author of Beyond Happiness: The 6 Secrets of Lifetime Satisfaction, to learn more about how platforms like Instagram change the way we think and feel about ourselves, and how we can stay connected without going too far.
Just as I found myself opening Instagram more during the pandemic, Guttman tells me it’s easy for a moderate social media habit to morph into overuse, which is where you start to feel the negative effects of being so connected. “Excessive [social media] use has been linked to multiple mental health issues such as an increased risk of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, loneliness, self-harm and suicide,” Guttman says. She notes that body dysmorphia, in particular, is often exacerbated by excessive time on social media. This isn’t terribly surprising given proliferation of filters, which she says “change how individuals perceive their bodies as well as the bodies of their peers. It has resulted in an increase in cosmetic surgeries in younger people to match more closely what they’re seeing as an ‘ideal’ body image.” Teenagers and young adults are particularly susceptible to many of the problems Guttman is concerned about, and though I’m neither a teenager nor a young adult, I’ve still fallen into the trap of comparing myself to people on Instagram from time to time. Another issue for younger Instagram users is the potential for FOMO. Guttman explains that when adolescents who are searching for a sense of community and belonging spend too much time perusing vacation photos and party videos and the like, “Social media FOMO can easily lead to feelings of exclusion and inadequacy.”
That’s not to say social media is completely devoid of benefits. “It can be used as a tool to connect people on a variety of important issues raising empathy and awareness,” Guttman explains. “It can help likeminded people find a community. Because of social media, the world has become a smaller place and people can more easily stay connected.” That facilitation of connection was my main reason for getting back on the app. Though I regularly see the people I’m closest to (or talk to, in the case of long-distance friends), I hated feeling out of the loop in regards to the lives of all those people I don’t necessarily stay in touch with, but enjoy keeping up with virtually nonetheless.
Aside from feeling like I was missing out on peripheral friends’ and one-time friends’ life updates, there were only a handful of times I really considered rejoining. Just before I deactivated, I went to Europe for a couple of weeks, and spent an embarrassing amount time thinking about how best to showcase my trip on Instagram. Posting while on vacation—even if just stories—was just something you did. Any time I was traveling while off Insta, the temptation to share with the internet crept in. How will people know that I’m doing fun and interesting things if I don’t post a story at the Rijksmuseum or on the Vegas Strip or in front of the Bean in Chicago?! My Instagram break made me confront my own vanity and need for external validation about what I’m doing or wearing or who I’m with, and while there’s no doubt in my mind I’ll post a story from my upcoming trips (Eras tour in Kansas City, I’m coming for you), I’m glad I’ve at least spent a little time asking myself why that is.
I asked Guttman if there’s a happy medium between feeling disconnected and going overboard. “For the benefits of social media to be maintained without sliding into addiction, I recommend limiting the amount of time you spend on social media daily,” she explains. In practice, this could look like committing to only checking Instagram between the hours of noon and 2 p.m., or setting your timer for ten minutes every time you open the app to hold yourself accountable for a quick browse, or even just moving Instagram from your home screen to the third (or fourth) page of apps, so you're not staring right at its logo every time you open your phone. She also recommends occasional social media “holidays,” which she says can remind your brain not to reach for your phone whenever you’re bored and looking for fast paced entertainment. “This time provides a reminder to your brain that there are other activities that foster learning and creativity, they just may require slightly more mental patience.”
So while I finally caved and am back on Instagram—and loving scrolling through passing acquaintances’ life updates and Scandoval theories—I’m already planning my next break…even if it’s just for a few weeks.