Humans are social creatures, and science tells us that social media can have some benefits for our mental health.
But that sensation in the pit of your stomach when you see your friend post a picture of themselves with Beyonce from your front row seat, alone on the couch, tells you there’s something insidious about Instagram.
Recent studies suggest that social media use is not depressing – unless it triggers envy, and therapists Dr Susan Krausse-Whitbourne and James Robinson suspect that photos posted by people with cooler (looking) lives with than you are the prime medium for envy.
And if that’s the case, then Instagram is Facebook on steroids, a platform of mass comparison.
But it doesn’t have to be that way, Dr Krausse-Whitbourne and Robinson assure Daily Mail Online. Taking a few pages from the cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) book, and a few breaks from your feed will help combat your crushing Insta-envy.
Over a billion of us use Instagram, and the average millennial spends at least half an hour looking at perfect-looking lives and fueling feelings of envy – but psychologists say it doesn’t have to be that way
The reign of social media is showing no signs of slowing down, and neither is the rise in mental health issues in the US and around the world.
Some have flat-out blamed platforms like Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram for single-handedly ‘ruining’ a generation.
Others say it’s not social media’s fault, and still others say social media is as much a reflection of the global mental health crisis as it is the cause.
One thing social media is, undeniably, is ubiquitous.
This summer, Instagram reached one billion active users. Those under 25 spend an average of 32 minutes a day scrolling through posts and flipping through stories.
And it’s this ‘passive consumption,’ as scientists term it, that can be most envy-reinforcing and damaging to our psyches.
Research on social media use (there isn’t much specific to Instagram, yet) from Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute breaks our online social activity into three categories: direct communication with individuals, passive and broadcasting.
Instagram broadcasts images to a broad network of passive consumers, and typically posts don’t come with all that much information.
And that is how reality starts to get distorted.
‘The issue with Instagram is that some of the things being portrayed aren’t entirely real,’ says Robinson, a therapist at the Kull Institute in New York.
‘Sometimes people present themselves as living a life that they really aren’t, and it can create these masks that are unattainable.
‘It can feel terrible, cycling through all those things you you don’t have can build anger and resentment.’
But Robinson and psychologist Dr Susan Krauss-Whitbourne, a professor emerita of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst says that Instagram doesn’t have to be such a breeding ground for envy.
1. PERSPECTIVE SHIFT: BE INSPIRED BY INSTAGRAMMERS YOU ADMIRE INSTEAD OF ENVYING THEM
We often talk about jealousy and envy as if they are the same thing, but Instagram fuels the more insidious of the two.
‘Jealousy is really the fear of losing something, while envy is resentment toward something you don’t have and that’s what Instagram provides,’ says Robinson.
But who consumes media on Instagram and how the consume it really dictates whether or not the feeling of envy is there.
‘People who tend to look at social media are seeking out either validation or refutation,’ says Dr Krauss-Whitbourne.
‘Neurotic people who are a little shakey on their sense of identity and even the quality of their face-to-face relationships are more vulnerable to FOMO, jealousy and thinking “why am I not included in everything?”‘
That emotional world is almost more toxic,’ says Robinson
James Robinson, licensed therapist at KIP
And combating that sense of ‘refutation’ can start with making a mental switch from comparison to aspiration.
‘The other side of envy is admiration,’ Robinson says.
‘When you see somebody that travels around or has the ability to do that job [you admire], try to understand how they got there and learn from those people’s abilities and what they’ve done.’
Or, acknowledge that you are different from them, and maybe you don’t want the life they’re living – however perfect it may look in 640 x 640 pixels.
2. TALK TO ‘REAL’ PEOPLE YOU KNOW – ONLINE AND IRL
The illusion of a perfect life that gets painted on Instagram is more quickly shattered when you can get more information about what was really going on when that picture was taken – and through the course of your ‘friend’s’ lives.
Plus, as the Carnegie Mellon study found, direct communication between individuals can bolster your sense of self-worth and combat anxious, envious thoughts.
‘Find something with a person you have a close relationship with that gives you that sense warmth and belonging,’ advises Dr Krauss Whitborne.
‘Find other sources of positive feelings and go back later with a better frame of mind.’
Those closer relationships also keep our perceptions of people’s online lives more grounded.
Robinson says he, too, has had to learn these skills as he browses Instagram.
‘When I come to realize that people are presenting a fantasy, it’s because I know them more personally,’ he says.
‘Sometimes you realize that [people that appear to be backpacking the world] took 20 pictures on vacation, but took a month to stagger them on Instagram.
‘You can still admire them, but it’s important to ask: “Is it realistic for me? Is it realistic in general?”‘
3. KNOW WHAT KINDS OF IMAGES MAKE YOU ENVIOUS – AND WHY
Photos, especially on Instagram, can present several different categories of fantasies.
You probably have that one friend posting shots of their solo adventures in a different destination every day, and one whose weekly work triumphs always seem to have captions that begin ‘I’m so honored …’
And then there’s the one friend whose entire Instagram a like a bingo board of bliss.
‘That is not realistic – as a therapist, I can tell you, it doesn’t happen – and it wouldn’t actually be a good thing if it did,’ Robinson says.
These are the Instagram users that are ‘presenting an emotional world, and that’s particularly hard [to cope with].’
When we see a steady stream of people who seem perfectly adjusted, it’s impossible not to compare our own mental states, and become convinced that because we don’t see our own lives through Instagram filters, we must not be as happy as those who are broadcasting their own.
‘That emotional world is almost more toxic,’ says Robinson.
But the important thing is to identify what feels most toxic to you, personally.
‘On an individual level, what is it that becomes so unnerving? Is it that foreign world that feels impossible, or the emotional world?’ Robinson asks.
4. INSTAGRAM IS A FEED – SO MAKE SURE YOUR DIET IS A HEALTHY MIX
When you’ve identified the accounts that aren’t working for you, be resolute. If you aren’t, you can quickly enter that all-too-familiar envy spiral.
‘That one experience can create that vicious cycle. So recognize when it’s happening and just say, “no,”‘ says Dr Krauss-Whitbourne.
‘Push back, take a break and … and do something active that will engage your mind, like hobbies, crafts, physical exercise,’ and other modes of being ‘active’ rather than ‘passive’ consumers.
Dr Krauss-Whitbourne emphasizes the importance of limiting your time on Instagram, because becoming compulsive about your feed will fuel neuroses and, in turn, envy.
And when you do come back to the ‘gram, try seeking out the real – a category Robinson suspects might be have growing presence on the platform.
‘I have this sense that we’ve been celebrating celebrities and the harder things they expose on Instagram,’ says Robinson.
‘So maybe follow the people that are presenting the good, bad and the ugly – but be aware that people curate their pain, too.’
It’s all about finding the right balance for what can inspires you instead of inspiring your envy – but don’t be too hard on yourself if you binge occasionally, ‘like you would watch TV that makes you not feel good,’ Robinson says.
‘Curate your Instagram feed like you would your diet: seek out the healthy things, even though sometimes it feels good to watch things that maybe aren’t totally healthy for you.’