It’s old news now that Instagram is bad for our mental health. It’s been one of the facts mainstream media has latched onto for the last few years when coming up with ways to persuade us that constant advances in technology, especially mobile technology, are bad. Along with suggestions that too much screen time is bad for us, the mental health impacts of social media are widely cited. And there’s certainly some truth to the headlines – numerous studies show links between social media use (especially Instagram) and anxiety, depression and self-esteem issues, especially in girls, now at scarily young ages. For years we’ve been told to be aware of the fake nature of Instagram – it’s a highlight reel of people’s lives, you never know what’s Photoshopped and filtered and what isn’t, all it does is trigger cycles of anxiety and comparison, etc etc.
But my personal experiences don’t match up to this. In the last year or so especially, I’ve put some effort into curating my social media into a place that I enjoy spending time – an extension of the way I’ve carefully turned my bedroom into a sanctuary, a place where I feel safe and calm. I’ve slowly started following people whose content I find visually appealing, or make me feel better about myself, or teach me important lessons. People like Caoilfhionn Rose, who shares gorgeous travel photos and reminds me of how much of the world I have left to see. People like Lucy Mountain, who calls out diet culture and has been a huge part of helping me to maintain a healthy relationship with food. Em Clarkson and Alex Light, who both remind me to appreciate my body for everything it does for me, rather than focusing on my perceived flaws and imperfections. Hayleigh JM, who has the most insane hair and who’s stories I genuinely look forward to watching, they’re so guaranteed to make me laugh. Chloe Plumstead, who somehow manages to put so many of my thoughts into perfectly articulated words, far better than I ever could. There’s a few more, but the point is via following these people, my Instagram feed has become a respite from the stresses of everyday life – and more specifically, the seemingly endless lockdowns.
Instagram can also be an incredible pool of knowledge for understanding and interpreting your emotions and situations you’re experiencing. On a personal level, I’ve found that accounts such as @morganharpernichols, @anxietyjosh and @realdepressionproject have put emotions I didn’t even realise I was experiencing into words, and made it so much easier for me to process them. They’ve also helped me discover that although I may feel utterly alone at times when I’m struggling, in reality there are millions of other people that can relate to how I’m feeling. When depression is setting in and I’m filled with fear that there’s something wrong with me, or I’m broken, or there’s no way I can survive this, the relief of finding out that someone else can articulate that feeling and thousands of people have felt it too is acute. This connection to an online community, just through an Instagram post, has done wonders for helping me deal with and learn to cope with my mental health, as well as helping me to recognise when I need to acknowledge I’m struggling and reach out for help.
The acknowledgment of the harm social media can do, and the subsequent growth in education around it in the last few years, has had the paradoxical effect of making social media a more pleasant place to be. You have to carefully curate your feed, certainly, and a degree of education and social awareness is required to be able to consciously make those decisions about how to make the platforms work for you – but it can be done. Indeed, I’m hugely grateful for the existence of Instagram – I’ve learnt so much from it that I’m unlikely to have from anywhere else, because I just never would’ve been able to find the information.
Especially as a result of the pandemic, it feels as though more and more sub-communities are popping up on Instagram and other social media platforms, creating a space where you can be reassured that your feelings are valid, and normal, and will pass. A space where you can distract yourself from the wildness of everyday life in 2021. A space which you can mould into a microcosm of your everyday life, but with more control over what you see and who you interact with than you could ever have in real life, especially in the middle of a pandemic.
Of course, this comes with issues – the echo chamber of political views that can be seen especially on Twitter, the rise of fake news, the lack of regulation and possibility of inadvertently falling down a rabbit hole of damaging content. But maybe as we learn more we’re turning a corner, and starting to learn how to harness social media in more positive ways. Maybe Instagram doesn’t deserve all the criticism it faces – just most of it.
featured image via @morganharpernichols