Instagram is only depressing if you follow a lot of strangers

There’s another study out linking social media use to depressive symptoms, though this one has an interesting twist.

Researchers at Pace University found that more frequent use of Instagram was associated with symptoms of depression and negative comparisons with other people on the network. This trend was more extreme for people who followed a higher ratio of strangers to friends. The reverse was true, however, for people who followed a high ratio of friends to strangers.

If you think about it, this makes sense, and it’s a hypothesis that the researchers had going into the study, which involved an online survey of 117 Instagram users between the ages of 18 and 29.

After all, when you’re swiping through your Instagram feed and come across yet another perfect photo of celebrities or paid Instagrammers on an exotic vacation, you may wrongly assume their lives are so much better than your own. When you follow people you know, however, it’s easier to remember that carefully edited Instagrams are not representative of real life.

Still, the study could not measure whether negative feelings were a result of looking at strangers on Instagram, or if people who follow mostly strangers may already be more prone to such feelings.

Depressive symptoms were measured by a series of questions, with higher scores indicating more depressive symptoms. Social comparison was measured by a series of questions, with higher scores indicating that people had more positive feelings about themselves compared to others.

Here’s a chart showing that frequent Instagram use (more than 11 minutes a day) is significantly associated with depressive symptoms only if you follow a high ratio of strangers to friends:

Here’s a chart showing that frequent Instagram use is associated with positive social comparison only if you follow a low ratio of strangers to friends:

Write the study authors:

These findings underscore the importance of how many strangers one follows, which is consistent with findings that Facebook users with more friends who are strangers are more likely to exhibit attribution error toward those users they do not know. This then places undue emphasis on internal characteristics to explain behaviour, which can lead to negative social comparison. On the other hand, seeing photos of friends and acquaintances might trigger positive feelings, or at least be counterbalanced by knowing how those people actually live, and thus reduce attribution error and thereby negative social comparison.

On average, users followed four strangers for every six people they knew. 


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