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  • Writer's pictureHannah Kapff

The Impact of Instagram Use on Mental Health in Today’s ‘Reputation Economy’

As we start the second decade of the 21st century, some people are taking part in ‘Dry January’, while others in a digital detox, giving up their social media habits. What people post on Instagram can indeed be very misleading, which reminds us of an interesting story two years ago.

In 2018, the world was shocked by the tale of Anna Delvey – A Russian con artist who fabricated a tale of wealthy parents back in Germany in order to convince new friends that she was an heiress. During her time as a New York City socialite between 2013 and her time of arrest in 2017, she is believed to have wracked up a minimum of $275,000 through larceny, and by scamming of business acquaintances and several hotels.

Anna was charged guilty of second-degree larceny, theft of services and one count of first-degree attempted grand larceny in 2019, and is expected to spend anywhere between 4 and 12 years in prison.

Hall of Mirrors

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the tale of Anna Delvey (real name Anna Sorokin) is just how long for she was able to convince so many to believe her ‘made up’ life. It is worth taking into consideration, however, that we are all guilty of some way of fabricating a false identity when given the opportunity, in the form of social media content.

American political commentator, William Maher, explained in 2018 that people in today’s society “live two lives. There’s the real us, the person in a kitchen or a bar, who speaks like a human with trusted friends, and then there’s what I call our avatar.” He goes on to explain that while our avatar looks and sounds like us, “it’s not really us.” Our avatar is the persona we adopt online in front of our followers on social media platforms.

The Empress is wearing no clothes

Maher’s comments, and Sorokin’s tale, lend themselves to the belief that we are currently living in Reputation Economy. This can be loosely defined as the way in which a product’s, person’s or anything’s standing is shaped by the reviews and contributions of the end user (e.g. a consumer). Anna Sorokin’s crimes are, of course, an extreme example. Her seemingly glitzy lifestyle and charisma meant that many held her in high esteem, which meant she was able to scam person after person.

However, while some may profit from this Reputation Economy, by grasping it with both hands, what are the negatives? How healthy is it to rely so heavily, in our personal and professional lives, on something as intangible as ‘reputation’? And what impact does living in a Reputation Economy have on our mental health?

Instagram specifically has been reported as the worst social media platform for mental health and wellbeing. The 2017 #StatusOfMind survey by the UK Royal Society for Public Health included input from 1,479 young people (aged 14 to 24) from across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

‘Comparison is the thief of joy’

Social media posts allow people to build up an ideal ‘avatar’ of themselves where they live a perfect life. This sets unrealistic expectations for others which explains why Instagram, a visual platform, received the worst scores for body image and anxiety. Snapchat, another visual platform, was labelled the second most detrimental to young people’s mental health (after Instagram). One survey respondent wrote, “Instagram easily makes girls and women feel as if their bodies aren’t good enough as people add filters and edit their pictures in order for them to look ‘perfect’.” In addition, the setting of the posted image can also have an impact: “Seeing friends constantly on holiday, or enjoying nights out, can make young people feel like they are missing out while others enjoy life. These feelings can promote a ‘compare and despair attitude’,” continues the report.

Compare and despair is an ‘unhelpful thinking style’ often dealt with in CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) which shows how common it is as a pattern. That social media is promoting this thinking process, especially amongst young people, is pernicious. It also places the onus on brands that advertise via social media not to be so cynical and manipulative of human frailty.

Vanity metrics’ further add to the negative impact that Instagram, and all other social media accounts, have on mental health. These are metrics that may impress others, but are not useful or really meaningful. Prime examples of this include follower counts and numbers of likes. The nature of social media allows people to easily fall into the trap of valuing themselves in accordance to their number of followers and likes on their latest picture. We find our brains hooked on continual hits of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, adrenaline and cortisol. In a ‘Reputation Economy’, these high statistics may come in handy when securing brand deals etc, but are detrimental to someone who has a ‘compare and despair’ style of thinking.

‘Reputation as valuable as money’

Social scientists have long been trying to measure the value of reputation. A 2008 study at the National Institute for Physiological Sciences in Japan looked to determine whether people think about reputation and money in the same way. They did this by mapping the neurological responses to both elements. Test subjects had their brain activity monitored while they were winning a simple gambling game to win money. The next day, they were presented with a one-word descriptor which a panel of strangers had supposedly written about them e.g. ‘trustworthy, modest, selfish.’ The results showed the same part of the brain lit up when receiving a positive descriptor as when they won money. Essentially, our brains view a positive reputation as being as valuable as money.

What Price Reputation?

With this in mind, it is no wonder people find getting 100 likes on their Instagram picture satisfying – It’s potentially 100 people (some strangers, others not) saying they find you ‘worthy’. With 91% of 16 to 24 year olds using the internet for social networking, it’s key that they’re taught how redundant ‘vanity metrics’ actually are. This comes in spite of their favourite celebrities using their own vanity metrics to leverage careers and enjoying pleasure they get from these numbers. Once people start measuring their self worth according to numbers, it creates a situation where they require more followers and more likes to produce the same feeling. It is neither healthy, nor sustainable.

Are we doing enough to help our brains, especially young ones? Afterall, the brain continues to develop until the age of 25! Today’s 13 year old will potentially get 12 years of social media “moulding”. By the age of 25, half their lives will have been spent counting their worth in ‘data.’ It is for this reason that many people choose to take that all-important ‘digital’ detox. The commitment to detoxing varies from simply deleting social media profiles or refraining from using electrical devices completely. This kind of detox is purported to have multiple benefits, aside from improving mental health. Beverly D’Silva recently tackled the issue of social media addiction in an article for Breathe magazine. She explained that when someone is taking “pictures of anything and everything – including their breakfast, lunch and dinner” as well as “finding it difficult to have face-to-face conversations” is when it’s time for them to consider seeking help.

We’re curious to know what the future holds for people growing up in today’s Reputation Economy! We wonder if Anna Delvey might be reflecting on the same question from her cell.


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