There are 700 million monthly users on Instagram, 328 million on Twitter, and 2 billion on Facebook. That’s a lot of people, a lot of scrolling, and a lot of time spent analyzing other people's painstakingly curated public images.
Sometimes that's fun: A great way to stay in touch, an insight into a far-away friend or role model's life. But we’ve all fallen down that often-dark Instagram rabbit hole, liking pic after pic, wondering why you’re not at brunch, or in Bali, or on a boat, or with a boyfriend, or in buzzy designer brands.
In August, even Chrissy Teigen admitted that looking at what others share often makes her feel badly about herself. “My old ass will go on social media, and I will look at the Photoshopping, Facetuning, and the apps—and everything that goes into creating what is now a hit Instagram photo—and I feel insanely inadequate,” she said, explaining that she’s cried to husband John Legend after looking at people’s posts and stressing over her own body image. “I felt like I would just never have ‘that’ body.”
Could endless scrolling be damaging our mental health? To figure out where these insecurities stem from, we turned to Andrea D. Vazzana, PhD, a doctor and professor at New York University who specializes in diseases that circle back to self-esteem. Vazzana's patients regularly bring up social media. “I see middle school kids all the way through adults who beat themselves up as a result of the types of images [they see] on Instagram and assuming that life is grand,” she says.
Usually, she says, these platforms amplify the negative feelings we already have about ourselves. “A lot of times, when people are doing these comparisons it entails them having a history of really scrutinizing themselves, often times in a particular area. Their attention in that regard becomes really selective.” Meaning, if you've always felt self conscious about your thighs, you might be inclined to then hop on Instagram and stare at someone with thighs you think are better than yours, magnifying what you perceive as a weakness.
We all know that the images on social media aren't depictions of real life—after all, we've filtered our own feeds—and yet we often don't buy into our own good sense. “I heard this great analogy about when you’re seeing a duck swimming in a pond, it looks like they’re just kind of seamlessly floating out there. That’s all we see, and yet if you’re looking underneath the water, their little feet are flopping away to try to keep them afloat,” Vazzana says.
So what do you do when—despite how much we try to think of ducks—someone's perfectly-lit swimsuit ‘gram makes us feel like s—? Thankfully, there are answers.
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Below, five ways to cope.
Limit Your Time
It sounds obvious, but most of us are probably spending more time online than we should be. “With Instagram and Facebook, people will kind of snag moments while they can throughout the day. When they’re in the elevator they’re checking their Instagram real quick,” she says. “Maybe you use that time in the elevator to respond to a text rather than check Instagram.” She suggests not spending more than two hours of screen time a day.
Focus on the Function of Your Body
If you’re feeling particularly self-conscious about your body, Vazzana recommends reminding yourself of what it’s designed to do. “We tend to beat up our thighs, but we lack appreciation for the fact that our legs get us from place A to place B, and that we are able to run and be active,” she says. “Having an appreciation for the function of our bodies is really important.”
Look at an Image Without Judging It
Try this exercise in neutrality: Look at a picture and describe it without using positive or negative words. Try vocalizing things from a factual point of view, saying, “The person has long hair” instead of “I wish I had long brown hair.” This can be a powerful tool to employ when you begin to feel emotional about an image. “Even positive judgments can end up kind of backfiring. Whether it’s a positive judgment or a negative judgment, it’s still a judgment. What is positive in one moment can become negative in the next,” Vazzana says.
Recognize What Else Could Be Bothering You
Maybe someone’s post really did affect you negatively, but could those feelings have stemmed from somewhere else? “What are the points where maybe other people made you feel less than worthy or where you yourself just kind of felt like you weren’t as good, and how long ago was that?” she says. Answering those questions can help you directly address a past event—she uses bullying as an example—to then move forward. “It’s OK to let those things go; those things don’t have to play a role in who you are today.”
Literally Follow Different People
“There is this inherit bias in the people that we choose to compare ourselves to. We chose to not pick out every third person whose Instagram we see but pick out the best looking and most popular,” she says. One way to take control of those comparisons? Click unfollow. Or follow more people who actually make you feel good. But importantly, remind yourself constantly that people post images of their fabulous vacations and special occasions—but it's the moments in between the photos that determine what someone's life really looks like.