This weekend I noticed that my Instagram posts were not keeping a running tally of likes. I was so glad to see this feature being tested. Thank you, Instagram.
I cut my social media teeth on Twitter because, as some have said, “Twitter is about words and Instagram is about pictures.” And as the leader of a publishing division (where I was when I first signed on), I was more about words. After moving back into local church ministry I started using Instagram more – mainly to post personal things and follow some staff at our church. It is a happier place than Twitter. Now, not all the happiness is real as this funny tweet over the weekend shows.
Instagram is also one of the platforms of choice for many teenagers — teenagers in my church who I care for deeply.
In her research-based book, iGen, Jean Twenge presents compelling research about the impact of social media on a generation. As a whole, they are more connected online and less happy than previous generations. They are more technically savvy and more anxious. They read less, sleep less, and are less hopeful than previous generations. Social media, for all its positive contributions to our world, has been harmful for the overall health of teenagers. So what does hiding the number of likes have to do with all this? A lot. Here are three reasons I am thankful Instagram is working towards hiding the number of likes:
Living for likes makes us less happy.
Jean Twenge discovered that 8th graders who spent ten or more hours a week on social media are 56% more likely to be unhappy than those who don’t. Why does more time on social media produce less happiness? Maybe, like me, you remember “yearbook day” growing up—the day you would get your yearbook, discover the group photos throughout, and pass around your yearbook for friends to sign. It was filled with highs and lows. A girl you liked could sign her name with a heart and a sweet message! Or she could half-heartedly only sign her name. You may find a group photo you loved or discover one with many of your friends without you, which reminded you of moments of feeling left out. Imagine every single day being yearbook day, the constant ups and downs of having photos liked or ignored, the anxiety of seeing photos where you were left out. Heavy social media use is driving significant unhappiness during the critical time of adolescent development.
Living for the approval of others will always make us less happy. And having a constantly updated counter of how liked you is a recipe for unhappiness. Which brings me to the second and related point…
Likes can train someone to live for approval.
One of the big takeaways from Twenge’s book and from an interview I had with her is the concern for how social media is training a new generation to think. Her concerns were not primarily about the type of content teenagers saw on social media, but how it trained them to process and think. Many confess removing a post if it does not get enough likes within the first few moments. I am not suggesting that the content teenagers see on social is not a problem. Many have confessed it is how they discovered pornography, as an example. But equally as damaging to the explicit content teenagers see on social is the constant training to live for the approval of others. Hopefully hiding the counter will help teenagers care less about the number of likes.
Likes can foster unhealthy comparisons.
Back to the yearbook illustration. Teenagers have it much more difficult today than in my day. Imagine if on yearbook day there was a running total of how many people liked your picture or of how many people wanted to sign your yearbook. So much pressure for teenagers. So much comparison. There is no wonder Twenge’s research revealed that there is relationship between declining mental health and increased social media usage. Hopefully by hiding the number of likes, the comparison game can go down some.
Does removing the running “likes counter” solve the problem? No. But it does help. Leaders at Instagram are responding, in a good way, to the growing concern about mental health among teenagers. I am thankful for their concern and the responsibility they are showing with this move.