The Facebook-owned social media giant Instagram recently announced a short-term experiment in which Canadian users would no longer be able to view the number of “Likes” another person receives on their Instagram post. While the experiment is intended for users to focus on content rather than the number of likes, research indicates that social comparison on social media platforms can be harmful for some young users who can become distressed when comparing their lives to others. Research suggests that time spent on these platforms can affect self-esteem and mood among young people.
The international interdisciplinary research organization Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development is calling on Instagram to block U.S. users from seeing the number of likes on their own posts, as well as on others’, since either function feeds social competition and contributes to a fantasy of social connection.
Children and Screens founder Pamela Hurst-Della Pietra, D.O. said, “The business of Instagram operates on a numbers game. Children and adolescents are being co-opted into participating by psychological persuasion techniques that are used in gambling. This experiment means that the leadership of Instagram is aware of the problem and it is a first step that I hope will spur further change.”
According to Children and Screens, this experiment may not be going far enough. Randi Priluck, Ph.D., professor and associate dean at Pace University, explained, “they’re still going to see their own likes. People are very driven by rewards so they’re still going to be competing for those likes. It’s not going to fully solve the problem.” It also wouldn’t address other issues created by social media like addiction, social exclusion, fear of missing out, cyberbullying and exposure to inappropriate content. “This is such a complex issue,” said JAMA Pediatrics editor-in-chief Dimitri A. Christakis, M.D., M.P.H. “Instagram should follow through with the issue that they identified when they announced this initiative and say: ‘We want your followers to focus on what you share, not how many likes your posts get.’”
“Removing ‘Likes’ from the Instagram social media platform has the potential to benefit the mental health of its most vulnerable users,” explained Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist Paul Weigle, M.D. “Studies indicate that adolescents who engage in social comparison on social media often develop depression, which is currently an epidemic in adolescents. A proportion of these teens check their Instagram posts obsessively for validation, up to hundreds of times per day, which can become an unhealthy habit when it displaces healthier activities such as socializing in person, getting adequate sleep, doing homework, and getting exercise.”
“Social media is uniquely poised to impact, in both positive and negative ways, adolescent development,” explained Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist Tracy Asamoah, M.D. “Social media platforms allow for endless opportunities for identity development and social interactions in a space where immediate feedback is expected and promoted. This can enrich adolescents’ experience of who they are becoming as they can engage with individuals who support and understand them. However, the receipt of negative responses or the lack of any feedback at all may contribute to feelings of anxiety and distress. Furthermore, anticipatory anxiety might arise when the immediacy of feedback doesn’t reach adolescents’ expectations. Immediate positive feedback from peers can foster a sense of community in young people but no response or negative feedback can shatter that sense of community. Receiving support through ‘likes’ is not a sustainable source of stability, safety, or happiness.”
“Likes” are a key component of the Instagram platform and removing the function could have a major impact on how users engage with the site – and on Instagram’s bottom line. But with the research clearly indicating the negative impact “likes” are having on users’ health, Children and Screens believes the decision is clear – Instagram must permanently remove the “like” function from its platform.