University of Portsmouth student Yordana Shopova examines how Instagram conjures an unrealistic image of the #perfectlife.
What’s the first thing we do when we open our eyes in the morning? Go to the bathroom? Mmm… in a bit, let’s grab the phone first. I personally have my own social media check ritual (as probably most of you do) – I begin with Facebook, then Snapchat, I check my emails, quickly swipe through Pinterest. Finally I get to my personal favourite: Instagram, the best image-sharing platform out there. I spend about an hour staring at perfectly captured sunsets, the newest fashion trends, ‘relationship goals’, ‘friendship goals’, motivational quotes and of course, pictures of cute animals. And all this happens in the morning while my brain is still not fully awake. So I think to myself, how far can this go? We feed our brains with unrealistic images, thoughts and ideas and then get disappointed by the consequences.
EMarketer has found that the number of Instagram members has risen by 20.9% to 77.6 million in 2015; accounting for 43.1% of all social network users. The prediction is that by 2019, Instagram’s audience will have reached 111.6 million. Scary figures, aren’t they?
Especially when you consider that Instagram pictures are very well staged or highly stylized. This should come as no surprise: in September 2015, researchers at the Indiana University School of Informatics and Computing released a study proving that Instagram is the social platform responsible for most fashion models’ success. Models promote products, clothes and lifestyles on Instagram because they are getting paid to do it. The beautiful woman you saw in that plush hotel, all dressed up, with flawless make-up on? Believe me, that isn’t a real person, as such. She’s a construct being sold by a corporation but via your smartphone rather than a billboard or TV commercial.
The good news? Many women already – Instagram models included – have started to argue that the ‘social world’ of Instagram is completely fake. Last year 19-year-old Essena O’Neill caused a media storm when she gave up on her career as an Instagram model due to suffering from depression and an eating disorder. When she quit she changed all of the captions on her Insta-profile pictures to honest expressions of her real feelings: ‘Would have hardly eaten that day’; ‘NOT REAL LIFE’; ‘Anyone addicted to social media fame like I was is not in a conscious state.’
To reinforce her point, Essena made a number of confessional videos in which she tearfully detailed the dark truth of her modelling career. After releasing them, she deleted all of her online accounts and set up a single website that she hopes will inspire more people to steer clear of damaging social media platforms like Instagram and dedicate more time to friends, family and real life.
One of the problems of Instagram is that it manipulates people’s insecurities. How many of us are obsessed with collecting likes on their Insta-profiles? Right now, I can think of at least five people I know, including myself.
Alexandra Lobodova is a 21-year-old friend of mine who can offer some insights into the Instagram issue. I meet with her in our favourite café where I find her (oh, what a surprise!) taking a picture of her afternoon tea.
She started using Instagram two years ago and has slowly become obsessed with it. ‘Now I wake up in the middle of the night to check how my picture is going in terms of likes,’ she says. ‘I’m actually more concerned about how many likes I get than how many hours of sleep I get. Sometimes I feel like I focus more on what my life looks like online, not what it actually is.’
Has it caused friction with loved ones? ‘I’ve had situations with my boyfriend,’ she laughs. ‘He hates me taking pictures of everything. Every time I do it he pretends not to know me. He thinks it’s lame.’
Alexandra realises she has a problem and is trying to enjoy the moment rather than simply capture it for Instagram. ‘I only upload a picture or two a week now,’ she says. But as we walk out of the café she grabs her phone from her bag and takes a quick selfie with me.
Sociologists argue that young people need socialising at least three times a week in order to maintain a healthy mental (and social) life. As long ago as 2010, a study in the scientific journal Psychopathology concluded that depression can be caused by internet addiction and a failure to draw a visible line between real life and one’s online existence.
What should Instagram users do? Balance and variety are vital. Life is full of exciting things to do, and you’ll only miss out if you spend all your time browsing pictures of models and trying to look/behave/live like them.
Main image by Yordana Shapova. Side image by Essena O’Neill, Instagram.