I'm a 26-year-old woman who spends hours on the internet every single day working in digital media. It'd be an absolute lie to say I don't care about Instagram—sometimes, it feels like I don't even have a choice not to care. Here's the thing: Without Instagram, I wouldn't be able to do my job well. I use Instagram as a vehicle to spark future story ideas, crowd-source real people for future interviews, showcase my writing, and more. A mentor of mine just told me I need to treat Instagram like a visual representation of my résumé. As millennials, so much of our success and future opportunities is dependent upon our Instagram, so we become consumed. However, where do we draw the line? Being swallowed by social media is so, so dangerous for our mental health. When you begin to treat your Instagram posts like a performance everyone's watching, you start staging your life in unhealthy ways. If you continuously use Instagram in this way, it becomes a place of judgment, comparison, and self-doubt. This practice plants the seed known as Instagram anxiety, which is deeply rooted in the minds of many who are consumed by the app.
I've found myself questioning my purpose on Instagram so many times. I deal with so many downs in my life that I'd never dare talk about on social media. I feel like I'm not "supposed to," and I'll be judged for being negative when I'm only experiencing feelings that are human. Many of my followers have the false presumption that I live a "perfect" and "fun" life, that success was handed to me. That's not true. And when I get sad, I hide from Instagram because I don't know what to portray anything other than my best self. It's complicated. On Instagram, we're inundated with images of curated highlight reels, so we forget what real life is actually like—that is, not perfect and unfiltered. This "social comparison theory" is something psychiatrist Samantha Boardman discussed in a recent article.
"It is a theory predicated on the idea that we determine our own social and personal worth based on how we measure up to others," Boardman says. "In other words, in the absence of objective means of evaluation, we are constantly evaluating ourselves—our intelligence, our attractiveness, wealth, success, etc.—in reference to those around us."
Although it is a natural human instinct to compare yourself to others, the birth of social media has heightened this feeling to a whole new level. "Rather than making comparisons to people who are in the same boat as we are, we now have a global landscape to draw from," Boardman says. "Mass media is one of the commanding influences today for social comparison and studies show it takes a toll on our wellbeing. Research has found that women who report frequently comparing themselves to other women, especially women in the media, are more likely to show signs of negative mood and body image disturbance found that women participants' brief exposure to media images of females led to increased levels of body dissatisfaction and weight anxiety." It's true: Images on Instagram can create a crippling feeling that plagues self-confidence.
Instagram isn't going anywhere anytime soon, though, so how do we move past this? I talked to real women (with beautiful Instagram pages) who were vulnerable enough to share their honest experiences with Instagram anxiety. Mental health advocate Claire Fountain, beauty and wellness influencer Mominatu Boog, and lifestyle YouTuber Tiffany Malone get really, really real. Read how they took their power back from Instagram below.
Claire on "Finding Self-Worth in a Sea of Hashtags"
How do you deal with Instagram anxiety?
Well, considering Instagram is a business for me, it has anxiety that comes from regular business stresses when content is being curated and so much is tied up in continued posting, engagement, and exposure. For me, I get where I don't want to post anything. When nothing feels genuine or appropriate, I'd prefer to not post anything, but I know it's part of my job and I can't always just stop. I'm well aware of the scrolling that can quickly become a spiral of comparison and feeling less than for people. I also know that self-doubt can certainly be part of that. I actually wrote a piece on finding self-worth in a sea of hashtags. I'm pretty passionate about educating people on how so much of what we see about self-love can actually make us feel worse about ourselves, not better. We are mistaken in thinking that seeing more bodies or different bodies will make us any less self-conscious and aware of our own, as well as the very nature of social media to some extent keeps the focus on our value being in our appearance.
On Knowing Yourself
How did you get past the anxiety that comes along with Instagram?
We have to know ourselves. To know yourself, you have to get off social media for a while, especially as a young person coming up in the world. To have real perspective, get outside of the social media and digital bubble. Read real books, talk to people, find mentors, travel, listen, journal, find a therapist if you need, learn; and once you can become a more whole person whose self-worth is intact, create a social media space that nourishes you and is a place you can learn and be inspired. I think identifying the issue is the first step and being aware. The second is to name the feelings. Work on processing those. Maybe you need a therapist or counselor if it's really controlling your life in a way that feels unmanageable or bad. From there, try different things to see what works for you. Remind yourself of what is real and what's not, and what you will do when Insta anxiety pops up.
On Changing Your Instagram Habits
Any practical, day-to-day habits you suggest to use Instagram without letting it dictate your mood?
Stop the addiction. Turn off notifications, and then watch how much you mindlessly, without even knowing it, check or refresh your apps. Create new rituals in the mornings and evening rather than scrolling social media. Call a friend, do social activities, or do a face mask and don't IG story it. Work on using your phone and social media consciously.
Is it possible to stop caring?
I think so, but I also think we have to be good to ourselves. We have to believe we are worthy. Now, there are some terrible things that can make us feel so bad on social media, and I wouldn't want to tell someone not to care if they are bullied, harassed, or targeted. That is a different experience and one that you have to process in a responsible way. But can you stop caring about superficial things and what you will post, who will see, how well it will do or not? Sure. Stop putting your worth in double taps. Figure out where your validation is coming from.
On Using Instagram as a Tool for Inspiration Instead
In what ways do you use Instagram as a tool for positivity?
Personally, the only positives I see are the amazing women, brands, and publications I get the pleasure of following. Artistic pages inspire me. Creativity and original thought inspires me. And, again, some of the pages I'm really interested in make my time on social media a positive place. However, you can't shut off everything else. I see just as much I want to roll my eyes at, but I have to make a conscious choice to not pay attention to it. We all have to learn to live above the noise.
Momi on the Comparison Game That Comes With Instagram
As an influencer, you have such a beautifully curated Instagram feed, which inspires so many of your followers. How do you remain authentic while dealing with Instagram anxiety?
I've definitely experienced Instagram anxiety in the past. I'd post a photo then quickly delete it. I was worried that my post wouldn't "perform" well. I'd assume that because I didn't showcase my body, designer fabrics, or sell FitTea that people wouldn't respond well. I would type long captions about overcoming anxiety and depression while I was still chained to those demons. I was still comparing my body to women who had entirely different genes. There was a time when Instagram felt very crippling for me because while my peers were building brands by showcasing their highlights, I built mine by sharing my lows. While many women would reach out expressing how it helped them, it wasn't always easy for me.
On Oversharing on Social Media
In order to heal from the anxiety, how did you shift your perspective on Instagram?
I stopped oversharing on social media. While my intention was to help young women cope and feel like they had someone to relate to and talk to about their traumas, I realized that I hadn't fully healed. While I appear extroverted, I'm very shy and love my privacy. I stopped sharing every aspect of my life and decided to live it. I unfollowed people who made me feel small, including friends. I started doing Instagram cleanses where I'd go a week or more without checking the app or deleting it from my phone entirely. While Instagram is a job for me, and it's essential for me to post, I don't live on my phone anymore."
On the Importance of Taking Instagram Breaks
What's your advice to others who are dealing with self-doubt when they're on Instagram?
Delete the app! No app is worth your mental health. Talk with someone to find the root of your anxiety and begin healing. Your healing won't come from scrolling though quotes on an app. Take time off.
Tiffany on How Instagram Will Make You Crave for Affirmation From Strangers
What's your relationship with Instagram like?
I'm one of those people who carefully curate their Instagram because it's just fun and I'm building my brand. Being that I'm a perfectionist when it comes to my feed, anxiety does come into play. I used to get anxiety about the simplest things, like if the picture I've chosen flowed with the rest of my feed. I'd ask myself questions like "Is this giving off the wrong impression?" or "Does this picture align with my brand?" It can be overwhelming trying to get Instagram "right." There have definitely been times where I'd post what I think is a bomb picture, but then my likes and engagement say otherwise. Instagram is addicting. I've definitely caught myself spiraling in a hole of comparison, and it has taken a toll on my mental health. You know, it's one thing to say "I don't care what other people think" and yet keep looking back to Instagram to see how many likes and follows you have. It's like a constant weird craving of affirmation from people you don't even know.
On Not Seeking Validation From Instagram
In what ways did you use Instagram differently so that it wouldn't negatively impact your thoughts and behavior?
Luckily, I'm getting over that whole validation thing, because I know the only validation that matters is God's. Now, I post what I want and tell myself whoever likes it likes it, and whoever doesn't, well, it's just not for them. It's not our job to make everyone like us; it's our job to be ourselves. It got to the point where I was unconsciously clicking on Instagram and delving into other people's lives. I came to a breaking point and realized this wasn't healthy and that I had to do something about it. Because believe it or not, Instagram was having too much control over my life. Though it may not feel like it, if you're constantly on Instagram, it can subconsciously shape your views, opinions, and actions. I was not having that. Now, I consciously make the decision to post and log off. I consciously, think about how much time I'm going to allow myself on Instagram. I even delete the entire app off my phone when I have to. I'd much rather focus on real life.
On Realizing What You See on Instagram Is "Not That Deep"
You touched on spiraling into an unhealthy act of being too obsessed over someone else's life instead of focusing on your own. How has your mindset about Instagram kept you from doing this?
Doubt your doubts before you doubt yourself. Remind yourself that it's really not that deep, because it's really not. Don't compare your life to someone's on Instagram. The fact of the matter is, whether what they portray on Instagram is real or fake, it's not your life; it's theirs. Someone may be doing something cool like owning a business or being the editor of a cool magazine, and you think to yourself, Wow, maybe I should do the same thing. You have to scream at yourself no, because it's their purpose, not yours. You living someone else's purpose will never make you happy, so it's best to just live your own.
Next: One editor decreased her screen time by 64%—here's what she did IRL instead.