In 2014, as an undergraduate research lab member, I authored a clinical psychology study-turned-article, “Do you ‘like’ my photo? Facebook use maintains eating disorder risk.” This was after I began to feel the pressure, myself, to lose weight while seeing photos of my super slim friends in bikini shots or workout clothes posted on their social media accounts. These posts garnered measurable likes, approval from our peers, and I felt like I had to compete with these unrealistic, and often filtered, body and beauty ideals. The controlled study ended up finding that Facebook use maintained anxiety and a preoccupation of weight and shape in college women who used the site.
It was at this point that I began to realize the scope of the problems millennials face when it comes to social media use and mental health. This was just the tip of the iceberg.
Now, just five years later, news broke that Instagram, today owned by Facebook, is internally testing a new model that would hide “like” counts on the platform. This means they must be aware of some of the potential harm that comes with focusing more on the quantitative versus qualitative aspects of posting content on their apps. An Instagram spokesperson confirmed to TechCrunch: “Exploring ways to reduce pressure on Instagram is something we’re always thinking about. We want your followers to focus on what you share, not how many likes your posts get.”
If Instagram were to implement hiding like counts, the change could potentially disrupt the $10 billion influencer industry, but perhaps this is exactly what we need. Influencers, like Casey Carlson, a.k.a. Officially Quigley, are often the very people upholding unrealistic ideals as they make their career and money off of advertising products in what’s supposed to come off as a nonchalant, natural way of posting. The problem? Social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook have created spaces that allow users to upload content and have it numerically rated on the same level as content posted by professional models and celebrities — people with exorbitant amounts of money and resources who are able to make themselves appear to fit unrealistic beauty and body ideals (whether through plastic surgery, personal trainers, professional makeup, Photoshop, etc).
What does it do to our mental health when the most-liked pictures that we post are the ones baring our scantily clad bodies? What does it say to users when a picture of a flower or sunset receives much less attention than the aforementioned? The message it sends is that our bodies are objects and are valued more than what we may see and value through our own eyes. The current model that social media platforms operate on allows us to constantly and easily compare ourselves with not only our peers, but people who have way more resources than we might in order to try to attain the same unrealistic beauty and body ideals.
Evolutionarily speaking, these platforms do the work for us by classifying the “fittest” via like counts. Who has the flattest stomach? Who is the most clear-skinned? Who appears to be the most perfectly curated? These algorithms sift through these posts, pushing the most successful — the “fittest” — to the top. The problem is, what appears to be the most successful content is arguably the most unhealthy. Some of the most-liked posts feature models with a body mass index well below a healthy range or feature celebrities who have had multiple surgeries to appear the way that they do. The problem is, we shouldn’t be telling young people that they need to be this thin, or have this cup size, or these curves in order to be successful, liked, valued, or “fit.”
If Instagram and other social platforms did away with like counts, we’d likely see a reduction in many problems young users face today, including bullying, encouragement of disordered eating, body comparison, anxiety, and depression. . These problems would likely still exist but perhaps to a lesser, more bearable degree. With the removal of like counts, perhaps we’d see a decrease in the obsession of social comparison, and a decrease in our preoccupation with our online lives.
Without like counts, maybe we, as users and viewers, would participate less in a ranking system of ourselves and our peers, allowing us to get back to a way of living that is more present and authentic. Maybe then we could get back to a healthier mind-set that many of us grew up with before the advent of social media, before we were so entranced by our phone’s glow. Maybe then, we could find our way back to liking something because we actually like it, and not because a drove of people before us decided to.