thoughts on things

Instagram: Helpful or Harmful? 

Instagram: Helpful or Harmful? 

Never one to be on-time to the proverbial party, I started using Instagram about a month ago.  Following along with The Idea Room’s photo-a-day challenge, I’m challenging myself to view life from a new perspective and capture it on-screen.  I’m new to the Instagram world and, while some of the content is just plain bizarre, I’m amazed and inspired by so much of what I see there.

However, shortly after I welcomed my 60th follower, I came across this headline from Quartz:

Instagram is the most harmful social media network for your mental health.

Well, that’s just great.

Evidently, the UK’s Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), an independent charity focused on health education, sifted through published reports to determine “how respondents felt different social media networks affect their health.”

After reviewing other studies and conducting their own UK survey of users 14 – 24, RSPH’s findings indicate that Instagram “appears to be the social network with the greatest negative effect…Respondents rated Instagram in particular as having negative effects on anxiety and body image.”  That’s in addition to a general, blanket assessment of the negative effects of all social media:

Earlier research has found that the unrealistic expectations and “fear of missing out” created across our social feeds can lower self-esteem and fuel issues such as anxiety and depression. These issues are only compounded by cyber-bullying and lack of sleep, another harmful effect linked to social media. The report cites recent research published in the Journal of Youth Studies that found one in five young people say they wake up during the night to check messages, causing them to feel exhausted during the day.

RSPH doesn’t leave us hanging, though.  It suggests some ideas Instagram and other networks could initiate to protect us from ourselves help counter some of these negatives.  From requiring users to disclose when a photo has been manipulated, to my absolute favorite:  screening user habits for mental-health issues and then sending them a secret message.  Can you imagine?  “Good morning, valued Instagrammer, based on your usage, we’ve determined that you’re nuts.”

Anyway, they say more research is needed.  Though I can’t see why.  Let’s explore.

When my son was in the 4th grade, his elementary school held an assembly to teach the dangers of the Internet and social media.  The principal asked the kids to raise their hand if they had an Instagram account.  At least half of the group of about 150 raised their hands, almost all of them girls.  Giggling ensued.

Typically, 4th graders are about ten years old.  The principal smiled and spoke into the mic, “Wow, that’s great, guys.  Do you know how old you have to be to have an Instagram account?”  Confused, uncomfortable glances.  “13.”

Can you see where I’m going with this?

There are images on Instagram (not just Instagram, of course) that I shouldn’t see.  As a 40-(cough) year-old woman, I’m aware that many of the beautiful-woman shots are Photoshopped; I know my tolerance for disturbing images; I know some people build wealth and exotic lives for themselves while I’ve chosen a quiet life in the country; I know the difference between fantasy and reality.  Most of the time anyway.  😉  When things go sideways and I need a break from the noise – and I absolutely do – I can shut it all down and walk away for a while.

But what about the younger set?  Until a certain age, and it’s different for every child, children may fail to properly distinguish fantasy from reality. We already know tweens and teens struggle with bullying, body-image and self-confidence issues.  We know about the 13 Reasons Why epidemic.  We’ve already been told that screens are bad for sleep.

These things are no longer news, yet the issues remain.

Here’s the thing:  we do not need a bureaucratic entity to conduct more research and develop new and intrusive ways to protect us from ourselves.  As parents – as a society – we get to choose the images/ideas/people to which we’ll allow ourselves and our children to be exposed.  Just because Instagram cites 13 as the legal age to open an account doesn’t mean it’s the developmentally appropriate age.  That is strictly a case-by-case determination we must make, both for ourselves and for our kids.

Using social media is a personal choice, and it’s up to us to know ourselves and our children well enough to know if the time is right.  For some personality types, the time will never be right – and that is perfectly fine.  My husband outright rejects social media in all its forms, and he seems to be managing okay – and he’s an IT professional.

As much as our kids hate it, we have the right to say no, to wait until they’re developmentally ready for the drama of social media – or anything else, for that matter.  Whether it’s driving a car, buying super-expensive-horrifyingly-glittered clothes (tween-girl parents, amiright?), staying home alone or opening an Instagram account, we (not Instagram or some faceless entity) must thoughtfully decide when the time is right.

Instagram is a tool; it is neither good nor bad.  Much like fire, it can be a good servant or a cruel master. Much like with fire, we protect our children from its dangers until they are mature enough to understand and protect themselves, and mature enough to act quickly and responsibility when things go haywire.

Interestingly (at least to me), I just quoted the following to my 11 year-old:

“Studies that found one in five young people say they wake up during the night to check messages, causing them to feel exhausted during the day.”

He scrunched up his forehead and said, “That’s not Instagram’s fault, Mom.”

Agreed.

What do you think?  Is Instagram a friend, foe – or something else?

Photo via VisualHunt.com



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