Last month, internal Facebook (now called Meta) documents revealed that “32% percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.” Instagram is one of a handful of social media companies under the Meta umbrella, but is receiving the most scrutiny for the mental health effects it has on its users. While the easy answer to findings, like the ones revealed by the Facebook whistleblower, would be to leave Instagram altogether, for creators who have built their livelihood on the platform, that’s just not feasible.
Much of the work to change how the mechanics of Instagram allegedly result in poor user mental health falls on the shoulders of Instagram itself, but that doesn’t mean creators on Instagram couldn’t benefit from making sure they’re being mindful about the effects of what they post, as well.
Ahead, Willa spoke to three psychologists about how creators can make sure they’re helping, not hurting, mental health on Instagram
1. Refrain from discussing diets, weight loss, and muscle building.
While your relationship with your body may be an important part of your life that you want to share on social media, seeing those topics may be triggering for some people. Not to mention, dieting and nutrition are never one size fits all.
“Those topics can negatively affect followers' body images,” says Jacqueline Sperling, a clinical psychologist, faculty at Harvard Medical School, and the co-founder and Co-Program Director of the McLean Anxiety Mastery Program at McLean Hospital and the author of Find Your Fierce: How to Put Social Anxiety in Its Place. “Every individual has unique nutritional and activity needs that are best discussed with a health professional.”
2. Be open about your own mental health.
We’re well aware Instagram is mostly a highlight reel of the best moments from people’s lives, so if you’re someone who makes a lot of content on the app, it’s helpful to give your followers a reality check.
“One of the issues that has been problematic is that we don't directly talk about mental health (or lack thereof) when we are trying to create an online persona,” says Georjeanna Wilson-Doenges, PhD chair and professor of Psychology at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. We often try to curate our social media life as perfect, without struggles. It is important for others to see a more realistic vision of who you are and the ways in which we all struggle, especially during the pandemic.”
3. Set an example for your followers.
Influencers are called influencers for a reason—because their behavior online can affect and change how their followers think about things IRL. While we often think of using this for things like fashion and beauty, it’s just as effective a tool for mental health.
“Share on social media the ways in which you enhance not only your physical health, but also your mental health,” Wilson-Doenges adds. “And when your mental health is not in good order, share how you seek help. Young people, especially, need to see clear pathways to reaching out and getting help and social media influencers can model this pathway for others.”
4. Share the love.
It’ll take more than one person to change the culture on Instagram, so make sure you’re uplifting other accounts who are also making the app a positive place for their followers.
“Promoting and celebrating others who talk about their mental health struggles and how they are getting care can be particularly effective in promoting mental health,” Wilson-Doenges says. “Elevate athletes like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka, who have made their mental health struggles very public, and who often meet with a lot of online criticism (bullying and harassment even).”
5. Double-check your sources.
Of course, all these steps are only effective if done with thought and care. That means thinking before you share, and making sure your content is based in facts—especially if you, yourself, are a mental health professional on social media.
“We must remember that our content needs to be backed up by skills, truth, and ethics,” Dr. Ebony, psychologist and food relationship expert who also has created a line of mental health resources centering the mental wellness of BIPOC communities, says. “Sometimes the only interface and interaction the general public has with the field of mental health is through social media, so we must be very careful and selective about what we share as misinformation can be harmful and we have ethics that encourages us to do no harm. This includes the social media space. Choose a niche and specialty and stick to that. When we are trying to cover everything, including areas where we are not well versed, we run the risk of sharing misinformation or further confusing the public.”