“…Instagram, a free photo taking and sharing app for iPhone and Android devices. Instagram allows users to take a filtered photo through the app (or filter a photo already stored on their device) and share it with their social network on Instagram and post directly to Facebook.” (Alper, 2013)
What a well-phrased description of the loved-by-all social media platform Instagram. Still, it makes you think – is that all there is to it?
Some time ago I stumbled upon the piece of art down below on Instagram and wondered – is this all true? And if so, why? Why did it resonate so much with me and does it resonate with other people as well?
View this post on Instagram
Post above has been embedded with consent! Thank you, @artbabygirl.
I was specifically intrigued by the caption under the Instagram icon (to the right.) How and why was that conclusion drawn? Can Instagram be the mechanism from which springs one’s need to compare themself to other people?
This multi-media narrative explores the idea of emotional contagion in the context of Instagram as a social medium of expression, picture-sharing and viewing. In order to better understand the user experience, I performed a moderately in-depth study of people’s usage of Instagram, how it affects their mood, how they navigate through it, and what’s the app’s ultimate role in their lives. I also wanted to see how people’s emotions fluctuate as they’re using the app and whether they’ve felt like Instagram has the ability to alter their mood. The survey was sent to a large group of college students and the total number of responses was 40.
Emotional Contagion? What is that?
70% of the people who responded to the survey did not know what emotional contagion is. So let me break it down real quick.
Emotional contagion is ultimately the idea that people’s emotions, behaviours, and expressions trigger similar responses in other people. In other words, emotional response can get passed on from one person to another – like a disease!
In a journal article, Elaine Hatfield, John T. Cacioppo and Richard L. Rapson, define primitive emotional contagion as something more of an automatic tendency to mimic other people’s facial expressions, vocalizations, postures, movements, and so forth, or in other words – to “converge emotionally.”
Emotional contagion is a phenomenon very often associated with social media, since social media platforms tend to have immense power over people’s opinions and feelings. The content we view online ultimately impacts our views and the way we feel, since we have no control over it and it can trigger emotions that we didn’t even know we’re able to feel.
To begin with, I asked people if they thought Instagram has the ability to affect or change someone’s mood and why. Here are some of the responses.
So how does it all happen? Quite simple. You go to Instagram, you start scrolling through all the posts and watching all the stories, sometimes for purposes as innocent as to just get updated on things, and next thing you know you’re sucked up in this loop of watching things often completely irrelevant to you. You’re absorbing people’s lives. Be it to kill time, to distract yourself, to catch up on news or current events…it sucks you in. Looking at social media becomes the equivalent of opening the fridge when you’re not really hungry – just for the sake of it. Maybe you’ll find something inside eventually.
Why (and how) Instagram?
Time magazine article says “Instagram is the worst social media network for mental health and wellbeing, according to a recent survey of almost 1,500 teens and young adults.” That is, the platform is associated with inducing high levels of anxiety, depression, bullying and FOMO, also known as “fear of missing out” among today’s youth. Instagram is definitely not the only social media platform that holds the immense power to influence people’s feelings, thoughts, and emotions. However, emotional contagion travels differently in a picture-centric medium. According to a journal article on social comparison on Instagram, “initial research suggests that image-based social media posts have different consequences for viewers’ mood than text-based social media posts.” ( Johnson & Knobloch-Westerwick, 2016) Most Instagram profiles are carefully curated to fit a particular aesthetic or convey a particular message to their audience. Often that message is “I am happy,” or “my life is good so look at it.” People assume the viewers of their posts will appreciate or even share their excitement about life, but that’s not always the case.
Yes, emotional contagion is real when it comes to Instagram. Looking at happy, inspirational posts can make us feel happy and inspired, and the same goes for negative, sad news or information. But sometimes looking at people’s carefully curated feeds can also have quite the opposite effect. Let’s call it ‘reverse emotional contagion.’ It happens when you look at happy posts and stories when you yourself are not in such a happy place. And people often put their whole lives on there. Instagram is saturated with posts tagged with a variety of different mood markers, from happy to sad and all of their nuances.
The ‘Like’ symptom
“The likes can make or break your mood. It can validate or invalidate your sense of worth. That’s why when I post a picture I choose to immediately get off the app and not check the post for at least an hour (but normally 3-ish hours) before I go back and answer comments.” (anonymous survey answer)
The Instagram algorithm has the ‘like’ as a main indicator of the ‘popularity’ or ‘likeableness’ of a post. The ‘like’ tends to signify agreement, relatability, admiration, and appreciation of all sorts. However, it’s also become a basis of comparison between people. People obsess over likes as if their future depends on them – something quite absurd when you think about how insignificant they are in reality. Still, they serve as some sort of approval, some almighty validation that people need in order to feel complete online. In order to feel that their digital persona is being liked and appreciated. I myself have often encountered many of my friends being overly conscious about posting on Instagram simply because they’re scared they ‘won’t get enough likes’ and overthinking the reaction other people will have to their post/s. If Instagram is merely that – a medium for expression and picture-sharing, then why bother worrying about people’s reactions and opinions about you and what you share?
Instagram vs. Facebook
Even though two of the top social media giants Instagram and Facebook differ greatly in their purpose, usage, and interface, they share one thing in common: they influence the public opinion and emotional state. Both platforms distribute consumer-made content, be it in the form of solely pictures on Instagram and various types of posts on Facebook. That content has emotional implications for each and every user out there. According to a research model found in a journal article by Sonia Utz, there are different individual-related factors that can determine the emotional response of a person when browsing content on Facebook, such as personality trait, overall mood, etc. Those same factors apply to Instagram as well. Facebook might evoke different emotional responses than Instagram or at least to a different extent, since your feed is not solely picture-based but also diversified with regular text posts, articles, people updating their profiles, and of course, ads. A lot of personalised ads. Still, emotional contagion in its original form is still in play. In Facebook’s case it is particularly present in the way political news and information are distributed in order to influence the public opinion.
From comparing social media and their implications, we can draw the conclusion that the framework of a platform doesn’t affect your emotional response as much as the content on it does, together with your current mindset. Instagram’s picture-centric interface, it’s simplicity and multifunctionality make it easy for people to connect with each other, share whatever, whenever, and observe people’s reaction to it. However, that can also have its drawbacks due to the overwhelming amount of content people are exposed to – often irrelevant to them. It is only natural that we’re most vulnerable to something when we don’t really want to see it but we’re exposed to it anyway. Looking at pictures as if taken through rose-coloured glasses can be hard when your perspective of the world is a bit more grey at the moment. This is why one has to be careful about their personal use of social media and what purpose they see behind it. One of the surveyed students shared that she/he used to allow Instagram to affect their mood when they were younger but now they have rules in place for their Instagram use. I feel like that’s something really important. Nothing can have power over you unless you let it and that applies to social media just as well. Taking a break from those networks every once in a while, be it for a day or for a week, is something absolutely essential that would help recharge your batteries, disconnect from life’s many pressures, and reconnect with yourself. And here are some tips on how to do just that:
Alper, Meryl. “War on Instagram: Framing Conflict Photojournalism with Mobile Photography Apps.” New Media & Society, vol. 16, no. 8, 2013, pp. 1233–1248., doi:10.1177/1461444813504265.
Hatfield, Elaine, et al. “Emotional Contagion.” Current Directions in Psychological Science, vol. 2, no. 3, 1993, pp. 96–99. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20182211.
MacMillan, Amanda. “Why Instagram Is the Worst Social Media for Mental Health.” Time, Time, 25 May 2017, time.com/4793331/instagram-social-media-mental-health/.
Utz, Sonja. “Social of Emotions Media as Sources 14.” Social Psychology in Action: Evidence-Based Interventions from Theory to Practice (2019): 205.
Vries, Dian A. De, et al. “Social Comparison as the Thief of Joy: Emotional Consequences of Viewing Strangers’ Instagram Posts.” Media Psychology, vol. 21, no. 2, 2017, pp. 222–245., doi:10.1080/15213269.2016.1267647.