The person behind the profile – does Instagram really make us happy?

Can we transfer fame and attention from social media platforms like Instagram to real life? concept m has investigated whether the Instagram phenomenon has positive ramifications on our private lives.

Social media has become an integral part of our modern societies. We can log into our social networks with our smartphones no matter where we are. We share our experiences with friends and strangers alike, and try to present ourselves in a way that makes everything seem as impressive as possible, that fills others with admiration, or maybe even arouses envy in our followers. This description probably evokes associations with one network in particular: Instagram – the app that dethroned facebook as the most popular social media platform among the younger generation.

Critics of social media platforms say they create an artificial world in which users experience a distorted reality. This virtual world shows us stories of people with a perfect bikini body watching the sunset on a tropical beach, or visitors of a huge music festival becoming one with the celebrating masses. Others rev up the engine of their astronomically expensive sports car while they casually get their Rolex into the picture, too. Next up, breathtakingly beautiful men and women who seem to live in perfect relationships. Only few people can really say about themselves that they have or do these things – but everything we get to see are the users’ best moments. Because we all just want to show us at our best: relationships have to be ideal, trips have to be heavenly, and wallets have to be bulging.

But how do people feel who constantly go to this world? How are their relationships to other people, how honest are they with themselves and how do they define beauty? We wanted to take a closer look at these questions. In our study, based on an online survey with 1,000 participants, we asked respondents, among other things, to tell us more about their social media usage behaviour and about their private life. We used a five-tier scale to quantify the latter. The values reported on in this article represent the two top-2 boxes of agreement.

Contrary to our expectations, we could not see any groundbreaking differences at first. However, there are interesting tendencies among people who use Instagram on a regular basis (at least once per week, n=237), occasionally (several times a month, n=218), or not at all (n=545).

One never-ending argument against social media is the claim that digitalising social contacts could lead to a distancing of real contacts. On average, 76% of those who use Instagram on a regular basis said they had stable relationships with other people while almost 90% of the non-users thought that about themselves. This includes regularly keeping in touch with and having mostly positive relations to partners, friends, family, or other people. Social media allow their users to quickly make new friends and to lose them just as fast again – always without a reason or justification. If we no longer want to see someone, we delete them from our friends list or “unfollow” them. To put it in a nutshell: We can end relationships on social media platforms in a quick and uncomplicated way. It therefore does not come as a surprise that Instagram users say less frequently that they have stable relationships.

Social media and the internet in general offer us anonymity and distance. We can do and say whatever we want and barely have to face (legal) consequences for it. The way we present ourselves only often has little to do with who we are in reality. You can easily become lost in your virtual self, especially if it’s successful with others. Honesty rarely pays off in this context. And indeed, Instagram users are less honest with themselves than the non-users: about two thirds said they were honest with themselves, while three out of four non-users confirmed this statement. It seems like honesty does not fit into this fake world that we create and experience on Instagram. If we follow every new trend, we cannot always claim that it matches our inner convictions and preferences.

Our last topic was how Instagram users define and assess beauty compared to non-users. Plain biometric pictures go onto ID cards, but only few of us use them to show the online world our face. The right camera angle, the perfect filter, a lot of make-up and form-fitting clothes dominate the presentation of the virtual self. Images on Instagram often could not be further removed from reality. And still – this increases the chances that we will receive more attention. So, naturalness should not have an edge. Interestingly enough, there were barely any differences among respondents in this regard. Whether they used Instagram or not, two thirds believed that naturalness is more beautiful than any kind of cosmetics.

The majority of the results confirmed our expectations, and even if the responses of the different groups were not worlds apart, some of them were still unsettling. It cannot be denied that social media have taken the world by storm and will influence the future lives of large parts of society. The way we present ourselves on social media can have a negative impact on our relationships and self-perception – and this is true for far more people than those who fall victim to political radicalisation or who find pleasure in hiding behind an anonymous mask and filling the comment sections of news sites with hate speech.

About the authors: Dr Martin Schultze is a Research Director at concept m research + consulting in Cologne, Germany, and teaches at the European Media and Business Academy (Europäischen Medien- und Business-Akademie) in Düsseldorf. Lars Greif is a third-year student of Applied Psychology at the Hochschule Döpfer. He started working at concept m as an intern in quantitative market research in September 2019.

Published: 13 November 2019

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