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Instagram can be bad for your mental health. So does that mean you should delete it?

As Quinn S., 15, scrolls through Instagram, she often experiences any one of these emotions: Intense jealousy of others (including her own friends). Sadness and frustration while taking in the lives of influencers, celebs and random people she doesn’t even know. Plenty of insecurity as she compares her body to the “perfect” ones filling her feed. “Instagram has definitely affected my mental health in a negative way,” Quinn admits.

Julie W., 17, can relate. “Using the app makes me feel more self-conscious,” she shares. “I compare myself to the girls I follow: Why can’t I dress like that? Why don’t I go to cool places? Why don’t I look that good in pictures?”

These girls are not alone. In September, internal research done by Facebook (which owns Instagram) and leaked by a whistleblower revealed that their photo-sharing platforms fuel comparison, create self-esteem issues and, yeah, can be downright damaging—particularly for teenage girls. Unfortunate? Yes. Surprising? Not really. So why are so many teens still scrolling away? The answer is complicated, explains Quinn.

“I can’t just delete Instagram. There’s pressure to be up-to-date with everyone,” she says. There are also the benefits: You can stay connected to faraway friends and family, easily share your thoughts and talents with a broad audience and follow super inspiring people who may motivate you to crush goals and go after big dreams.

No, Instagram is not *all* bad. But it can be a truly toxic space if you
get sucked into the comparison trap— which, as research has proven, is pretty easy to do. So is it possible to safeguard your emotional health and scroll more safely? The answer is yes (phew).

HEY, JEALOUSY!

It’s only natural to feel pangs of envy when you see pics of someone on your feed doing something you wish you could do. Maybe she’s lounging on the beach in Fiji or strolling the streets

of New York City, hand-in-hand with the cutest bae. Or she’s posing with her squad, looking amazing. Or she’s celebrating a league championship, hoisting a huge trophy above her head. 

Sometimes, those posts serve as a form of escapism: They let your imagination run a bit wild and allow you to daydream about what could possibly be (hey, who says *you* can’t get to Fiji one day?).

Other times, these images and stories can conjure up serious jealousy, putting you in a headspace where you’re left wondering why everyone else seems to be living their best life while your world is so, well, normal.

In fact, Instagram reports that “66% of teen girls experience negative social comparison,” which, experts
say, can do some real damage to your self-esteem. Plus, as you process one so-called perfect image after another, you may get stuck in a negative thought spiral—focusing on whatever you perceive you’re missing out on instead of centering on all the amazing things you *do* have in your life.

Not to mention that Instagram gives us a false sense of connection to others, explains therapist Jen Kelman. And as we become more and more invested in the lives of those we only see on our screens, we place less value on spending time with friends and loved ones IRL (which can lead to loneliness and isolation).

“I notice that the more time I spend on Instagram, the more I start to feel like I need to change myself to be better in some way,” says Leah M., 16. “It’s kind of silly, because I know I could be using that time to have fun with my friends—not staring at my phone being down about my own life.”

THE UGLY TRUTH

According to Instagram research, the app has made body image issues worse for one in three girls. Another study revealed that 40% of teen Insta users said they felt “unattractive” after using the app.

Between heavily edited images showing flawless, filtered skin and pressure to confidently rock the fiercest fits on your feed, it’s no wonder girls are feeling stressed and image-conscious while scrolling.

“I get really frustrated when my own body doesn’t match up to what I see from influencers or acquaintances online,” confesses Kiarra J., 15. “There’s a part of me that thinks, ‘Oh, I could never wear that look because I don’t have the right body type.’”

Therapist Mallory Grimste points out that, thanks to filters and Facetune, “it’s not always so clear when images are altered,” and that digital editing glosses over the realities of natural teen development, from breakouts to weight fluctuations. Which, again, may lead you down a dark road when it comes to your own appearance.

And even when images aren’t edited, they can come from people whose lifestyles are radically different from yours. “I used to compare myself to a lot of models and influencers until I realized that posting pictures is their job,” adds Maya B., 18. “I’m a full-time student, not a fashion model. I don’t need to look like them.”

QUIT OR STICK IT OUT?

For some girls, the Instagram report has been a catalyst to *finally* leave it behind. Rachel K., 15, decided to delete IG from her phone altogether. “I check my feed from my laptop, but way less often.” She’s found new (and genuinely relaxing) boredom busters, like reading comic books and texting her BFFs.

But many girls are simply unfazed by the revelations—and feel the benefits of creating community online outweighs the platform’s (now self-admitted) dangers.

And maybe a middle ground *is* possible. Quinn is trying to get there: “I deleted my original account and started a private page— only adding my closest crew,” she reveals. “That way I can keep up with the day-to-day while staying away from comparison culture.”

Grimste agrees with this strategy: “Once you shift to being your authentic self, you tend to be more motivated, focused and happy.” So take this as a sign to stop the self-hate and just live your life. Even if we don’t see it on your story, we’ll trust you’re having a blast.

MAKE SOCIAL MEDIA FUN AGAIN

The “casual Insta” movement is gaining momentum. If you’re choosing not to delete the app, take this as a sign to glow down your feed ASAP. Setting boundaries with social takes work, but we’re here to help...

Tip 1: Log out

You don’t have to delete the app (or your profile) to make a statement. Simply go to your settings and click the “log out” button. Having an extra step before you open your feed gives you a second to ask the question: Do I really want to check Instagram right now?

Tip 2: Cleanse your list

It’s a whole new year, so what better time to clean out who you’re following? Delete anyone who makes you feel meh about yourself. If you feel uncomfy purging an old acquaintance from camp? Just start a new account for besties only. Congrats, your Finsta is your new Insta.

Tip 3: Talk about it

Start convos with your crew about how social media truly makes you feel. Discussing the dark side of these apps can normalize the feelings they evoke (whether it’s insecurity, loneliness, envy or something else) and help to create a foundation for actual closeness with your girls.

Tip 4: Ditch your device (for a min)

Kelman has an important reminder: “You deserve time every day to just be.” So here’s permission to plug your phone far, far away and go take a walk, read a book or hang with friends. You’re too spectacular to let an app steal your shine.


Hey, girl! Just wanted to let you know that this story originally ran in our December/January 2022 issue. Want more? Read the print mag for free *today* when you click HERE.

Images: Pexels | Gifs: Giphy

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by Katherine Hammer | 11/16/2021
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