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Want a Better Marriage? Delete Your Instagram

The social media site is far worse for relationships than you think. Hashtagged life doesn't compare to the real thing.

I’m thankful for my wife for a lot of reasons. This week I discovered a new one: her Instagram activity is healthy for our marriage.

After researching Instagram’s influence on a marriage, I’ve identified a couple of danger zones for couples: following too many strangers and tunneling into too many hashtags. She seems to mostly stick to cooking videos and friends and steers clear of stuff like #parentingwin and #relationshipgoals. That’s a huge relief for me because I hate those goddamn hashtags. Also: I’ve been on those hashtags and I know I can’t compete with those posts.

The dads and husbands who fall under the #parentingwin and #relationshipgoals sectors make me look shoddy by comparison. I’m a low-energy, unshaven mess in rumpled clothes. They have gleaming white teeth and luminescent skin, like contestants on The Bachelor. They describe date nights with superlatives and hashtags like “amazing” and #shesakeeper and I remember the smarmy jokes I made to my wife the last time we went to the movies together, which was months ago. They’re on day 32 of a Whole30 and love quinoa and kale so much they may never eat another fry and I’m eating a Toblerone for dinner. They go on weeks-long vacations in kid-friendly Caribbean resorts and I’m watching my kid watch TV.

It’s impossible for me to stack up but I still feel worse for not meeting the expectations thrown down in these polished, performative posts. But at least the Instagram-abetted dad ego crisis isn’t unique to me. Emerging social science research shows it’s common for users to experience envy and self-doubt. It’s enough to prompt an uncomfortable question for parents who habitually use Instagram: would our relationships and families be better off if we deleted the app? 

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Since launching in 2010, Instagram has exploded in popularity. Today 35 percent of Americans use it, making it the third biggest social media platform, behind only Facebook and YouTube. Despite its prominence, research into Instagram’s effect on users is still young. While sociologists and psychologists have picked apart Facebook’s effect on its audience since the late 2000s and early 2010s, Instagram studies only started appearing in recent years.

Early studies of Instagram have made troubling conclusions. The 2015 Pace University study “Instagram: #instasad?” found that Instagram has characteristics that can trigger negative feelings of self worth. Instagram is designed to let us access strangers through search, hashtags and by its algorithm-driven suggestion feature. And while discovering people through the platform is one of the site’s marquee features, the study indicated a significant association between following a large number of strangers and negative feelings about self-image. The reaction was severe and common enough to be named “the thief of joy” in a 2017 University of Amsterdam study.

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The damage to self image occurs through the mental process of social comparison. While Instagram seems to have poured gasoline on social comparison’s fire, psychologists have spent decades exploring the concept since the influential psychologist Leon Festinger first identified it in 1954. Social comparison theory holds that humans are driven to evaluate ourselves in relation to people similar to us.

Festinger’s world was far less connected than our current one. Parents couldn’t instantly access thousands of like-minded strangers through a device in their pocket. It’s reasonable to assume their social comparisons involved friends, neighbors, relatives, and other people they knew in real life.

With Instagram, our social comparisons are made with strangers. As a result there’s far more potential for the comparison to leave us feeling bad. People generally hype up their lives on social media and treat their Facebook and Instagram feeds like highlight reels. Instagram’s photo filters may exacerbate the highlight reel effect. The Pace University study suggested that Instagram’s photo-enhancing feature fosters a culture of polishing and perfecting images where our unedited reality inevitably falls short by comparison.

The compulsion to present perfect Instagram images has had a funny effect on family photos. Through creating ideal versions of our parenting moments, we’ve dumped mountains of boring photos on the Internet. When researchers at Great Britain’s Northumbria University combed through 4,000 photos of kids and families on Instagram in 2015, they found that the photos almost uniformly conveyed the same message: “everything is fine here.” They expressed that message through “ordinary, repetitive and highly mundane snapshots of elements of family” with “bland, safe and frequently replicated compositions.” The researchers determined even images that purport to reveal mistakes or shortcomings convey positive messages by saying “no harm done,” and let viewers infer that the mildly inconveniences are the worst things that ever happen to the happy family.

Intentionally or not, parents’ Instagram posts act as promotional material showcasing how happy, safe and ordinary their family is. Bland though they may be, those photos can trigger negative social comparisons for parents prone to anxiety or doubt. What’s worse is that those images often share hashtags with images that truly are promotional material. The Instagram Influencer market is expected to grow to $2.38 billion in 2019. In search of the exposure and the access to the ocean of money exposure could bring, influencers and the agencies behind them hop on trending hashtags with professionally composed luxury images designed to inspire envy and either sell a sponsor’s products or convince a sponsor to hire them to sell their products.

zBut even if we avoid influencers altogether, another basic economic fact about Instagram is more difficult to avoid: the platform makes it not only easy but very likely for users to stumble on posted by very wealthy people.  While Instagram use is steady across all incomes, the greatest concentration is among the rich, with 60 percent of internet users with incomes more than $100,000 using Instagram. While our parents social comparisons involved keeping up with the Joneses, modern social comparisons means keeping up with the Waltons, Bezoses, and Gateses.

Given Instagram’s potential for negative social comparison, it’s natural to wonder if the true #parentingwin is quitting the site altogether. It’s a fair question with an easy answer: ask your partner to lay off Instagram for a week or so and see how they feel about their life without having something to constantly compare it to.

Instagram researchers seem eager to spotlight the social media’s capacity for misery through naming conventions like #Instasad and “thief of joy.” But the reports are also clear that Instagram doesn’t make everybody miserable. People prone to social comparison may feel inadequacy when they follow strangers on Instagram. That has a simple fix: stop following so many strangers and stop clicking on hashtags populated by accounts flaunting some polished, unattainable ideal. Doing so might lead you to share more of the happiness of your friends.

Negative social comparison isn’t the only psychological effect caused by Instagram. Researchers have also explored the site’s capacity for emotional contagion, where the expressive content of a photo inspires the same feeling in the viewer. For many people, seeing a happy picture might simply makes them happy. But if it doesn’t, think about joining Twitter. It’s full of negative people. You might love it.