Instagram Likes May Be Distorting Children’s Perception Of Reality, Says New Mental Health Research

A new study published in The Journal of Psychology explains that social media likes on platforms like Instagram might hold significant social relevance for adolescents with high social comparison and feedback-seeking motivations. The research suggests that such adolescents may be more emotionally susceptible to the feedback received.

“Instagram is configured as a platform where users are constantly exposed to social comparison processes, which become particularly relevant during adolescence when identity-building processes take place,” says Maria Carmen Herrera of the University of Granada in Spain. “However, individual differences based on social comparison may affect how users process information contained on social networking sites and, consequently, how it affects users’ psychological well-being.”

To understand the effects of social media likes on adolescents, the researchers instructed a group of adolescent participants to imagine a hypothetical situation where they posted a photo on Instagram that received few likes or many likes, depending on the experimental group to which they belonged.

They followed this up with an exercise where participants also expressed their emotional reactions (and their intensity) through emojis.

Two key findings emerged:

  1. Adolescents who imagined receiving few likes in the hypothetical situation showed significantly greater negative emotions and less positive emotions
  2. This was amplified for adolescents who showed a high tendency to socially compare themselves to their peers, and among older adolescents (ages 15-18)

“The results are consistent with the fact that social comparison processes and social reinforcement seeking become particularly relevant during late adolescence when identity construction processes take place,” Herrera explains.

These problems can have deep, long-term consequences for adolescents that can carry into adulthood.

According to Herrera, the following two features of social media sites make them particularly alluring to adolescents with high needs for social comparison and feedback-seeking:

1. They can be used as a means of self-regulation

Social networking sites can help individuals counteract their deficiencies and meet their psychological and social needs. However, when individuals fail to meet their needs and expectations through the use of social media, they may experience long-term psychological problems such as loss of self-esteem, feelings of loneliness, low perceived social support, depression, and anxiety.

“Intensive use of social media sites has been associated with increased body image concerns, self-objectification, social comparison, envy, as well as the likelihood of suffering from and engaging in cyberbullying,” Herrera highlights.

2. They can be used as a tool for ‘social surveillance’

Users of social media are involved in a reciprocal process known as “social surveillance” whereby they not only carefully manage their own posts but also check the content that others post on their profiles and their own updates from the perspectives of others.

“These dynamics of social surveillance seem to have a significant impact on users because they conceptualize what is normal, desirable, and popular in the online community,” Herrera explains. “People often perceive themselves as worse and experience unfavorable emotional states (eg, frustration, anger, envy,) as a result of these self-assessments, which, in the long-term, can lead to severe psychological problems.”

Conclusion: For the future, Herrera hopes to see more research aimed at examining the effectiveness of existing prevention and intervention programs on the responsible use of digital media, since the rapid development and updating of technologies means that both research and practical intervention must be subject to constant evaluation and revision.

“It is essential to review existing educational programs and promote the development of new ones that effectively prevent and address problematic Internet use at an early age,” concludes Herrera.

A full interview with psychologists María Dolores Sánchez and Maria Carmen Herrera discussing their new research can be found here: Social media likes can change the way you perceive reality and yourself

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