Social Media, Teens, and Mental Health: Is Instagram the new Photoshop?


On May 27, 2015 Mary Meeker of Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers released an annual report on Internet trends, which found that among 12- to 24-year-olds about one third reported Instagram as their most important social network.

With approximately three quarters of 18- to 34-year-olds using their smartphone cameras to post pictures to social media, it’s no wonder Instagram is their platform of choice. Instagram provides a window into the lives of friends, family, and strangers from all over the world. An array of filters allows users to portray themselves and their lives in the most flattering way possible. As teens and young adults spend increasingly more hours consuming perfect pictures of others’ seemingly perfect lives, we have to ask, has Instagram become the new Photoshop?

Like magazine ads, Instagram users can carefully construct their photos. Everything from clothes, to makeup, to hair can be staged to create an ideal photo of an ideal self in an ideal life. According to a 2010 study conducted by the Girl Scouts, 74% of girls ages 14-17 agree that most girls use social networking sites to make themselves look “cooler than they really are.”

Viewing idealized pictures can lead users of social media to think less of their own lives. Teens begin to wonder why everyone else is having fun without them or why everyone else’s life seems so much more exciting. In a 2012 UK study, 51% of social media users reported that social media negatively changed their behavior due to their decline of confidence caused by unfair comparisons to others.

As Kate Fagan stated in her ESPN article, “Split Image,” “Young women growing up on Instagram are spending a significant chunk of each day absorbing others’ filtered images while they walk through their own realities, unfiltered.” As teens increasingly drink the Kool-Aid, the line between real and make believe becomes inherently fuzzy.

No longer limited to magazines or billboard ads, the Photoshop effect – increased insecurities and anxiety, body image issues, and low self-esteem – is now an arm’s length away. Meeker’s report found that 87% of young adults reported that they never separate from their smartphones, and 80% reported that the first thing they do in the morning is reach for their phones. Moreover, it’s not just celebrities that teens are comparing themselves to; it’s now also their peers, potentially making the Photoshop effect more harmful.

Fagan’s “Split Image” article discusses how star athlete and University of Pennsylvania student Madison Holleran’s portrayal of her life on Instagram concealed her internal struggles with her mental health. Like many young adults, Madison would compare her painful reality to the idealized photos of her friends, fueling her depression. Madison committed suicide on January 17, 2014, and though Instagram did not cause her death, Madison’s story is a tragic, cautionary tale of the potential negative impacts of social media.

Over the past several years, both social and political efforts have been made to educate young adults about the negative impacts of excessive Photoshopping in ads. With technology becoming ever-more accessible and social media progressively becoming more intertwined with our daily lives, our discussions with teens need to adapt, fast.

Conversations need to include the negative impacts of social media, and although there may not be a one-size-fits-all solution, this is at least a start.


Michelle Mar is a journalist based out of Southern California. She specializes in writing about criminal justice, current events, and social issues. Follow her on Twitter @msmichellemar



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