Improving Instagram use
Unlike medications or cigarettes, social media platforms don’t come with warning labels, said Keel. But since Instagram’s internal research leaked to the public in September, there’s an increasing recognition that caution may be warranted when engaging with the platform. Alter recommends spending several hours at a time away from the app, either by leaving one’s phone in another room, activating airplane mode, or turning off notifications.
Concerned parents should avoid banning or overly restricting social media use among teens, Fardouly says, but instead have discussions with their children about harms and benefits. Start that discussion with open-ended questions, for example by asking kids how they feel when viewing different types of content and whether the images they see are real or edited. Encouraging critical thinking about material posted online can also help, because research suggests that kids and teens with strong media literacy skills struggle less with self-esteem and body image issues (Media Education and Body Image, Media Smarts, 2018).
“Adults can also model healthier behavior on Instagram by unfollowing people who post idealized content, following content unrelated to appearance, and spending less time on the app overall,” Fardouly said.
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Future studies of Instagram should focus on testing Instagram’s effects on mental health experimentally and longitudinally, said Nesi. Researchers are now moving toward studying individual differences in usage and conducting experiments with more diverse samples, and away from questions about raw time spent on the app.
“We also need to develop constructs that allow us to understand how adolescents use social media more broadly, because their preferred platforms change so rapidly,” said Choukas-Bradley. Instagram has already lost traction with teens, who tend to prefer TikTok and Snapchat (Taking Stock with Teens, Piper Sandler, 2021).
Instagram and other platforms can bolster these efforts, researchers say, with more collaboration and data sharing. APA is engaged in advocacy efforts to increase transparency into the company’s massive internal datasets and to increase federal funding for studying the mental health effects of social media use.
“Different people use social media in very different ways,” Nesi said. “We need to understand what factors make some people more sensitive to experiences they have online—and how those experiences might impact psychological problems in the future.”