Donovan Henry is a sophomore accounting major from Mobile, Alabama, and the pandemic is starting to get him down. One reason? Instagram. “Life can look good in pictures, but we don’t live in pictures,” he said.

As an active user, Henry notices that Instagram content alters his perception of his peers, and even himself.

“I think you begin to focus on appearances rather than reality. Your priority becomes impressing a group of people who honestly couldn’t care less,” he explained. Henry is not alone in these feelings — and science backs it up. In her 2017 Ted Talk, social media expert Bailey Parnell explains how constant exposure to apps like Instagram negatively affects the brain.

“In our social media, we are the product,” Parnell says.. “We are letting others attribute value to us. This is changing our sense of identity. With every like, you get a shot of that feel-good chemical: dopamine. Doesn’t that sound like every drug you’ve ever heard of?”

For college-aged students, an Instagram feed exclusively made of highlight reels has real-life consequences.

Ava*, a sophomore at USC studying neuroscience, who asked that Annenberg Media only use her first name so she could speak candidly, said she sees the negatives of the platform: “It probably does more harm than good. I catch myself feeling like I’m not good enough in terms of looks, edge, wealth and even get down on myself for not being outspoken enough politically.”

Even Instagram influencers, users with fan bases and large followings, experience the same emotional toll.

“Contrary to what you would think, I don’t think having a large following helps self-esteem. I find myself looking at other people with similar-sized followings: why don’t I have that brand deal? Why don’t I look like that? Especially now that I’ve moved down to Los Angeles. It’s tough not to compare myself to other people online,” said Tatum Dahl, @tatedoll on Instagram, a young model, social media influencer and recent college graduate from the University of Washington. With 273k followers, she averages several thousands of likes and hundreds of comments on every post.

Dahl’s career as an influencer took off after she appeared in a 2018 music video as the “it girl” for the boy band Why Don’t We. Today, “Trust Fund Baby’', sits at nearly 69 million YouTube views, leaving Tatum with a swooning fanbase and brand deal with companies like SkinnyDipped and Savage X Fenty, Rihanna’s lingerie line.

Dahl said that although she’s “weirdly used” to her following, she understands that her position as an Instagram influencer holds power and responsibility; younger women comprise the most of her following. She finds that oftentimes, elements like social justice or politics are not intertwined with profiles of Instagram influencers.

“I don’t tread lightly when it comes to what I believe in...I knew no matter what I was going to speak very openly...to vocalize my support for Black Lives Matter and who I am voting for...I was never going to tone [my beliefs] down just because of my followers.”

Still, she notes that around 70 percent of her Instagram is authentic. The rest? “really curated.”

“Everything you see on [Instagram] is what people want you to see. Even vulnerable moments,” said Dahl when addressing Instagram’s toll on her mental health.

The solution?

“Distance from anything can be good. Take a little social media break now and then.”

In a poll conducted via Instagram, 83 percent of the almost 300 college-aged respondents indicated that Instagram affects their mental health in some way. In written responses, users noted that Instagram induces stress, wastes time and impacts body image.

Two hundred fourty-six Instagram polls respondents believe using the app impacts their mental health. (Photo by Caitlin Calfo)
Two hundred fourty-six Instagram polls respondents believe using the app impacts their mental health. (Photo by Caitlin Calfo)

When Annenberg Media asked respondents if they have ever considered an Instagram “detox”, many noted it crossed their mind, but that actually doing so is hard.

“It’s difficult to leave [Instagram] without feeling out of the loop, especially with COVID-19,” responded USC sophomore Dilay Akcora.

When interviewed, USC junior Kate Dilley said, “I noticed myself reverting to scrolling through my feed when I felt extra anxious… It was really shocking how numb I was to the frequency with which I used it; out of muscle memory I would reach to tap where the app was before I deleted it.”

To save herself from those feelings, Dilley decided to take a break.

“I felt so liberated not constantly worrying about what other people were doing. I felt like the time spent on my phone became more about communicating with the people I love and less about scrolling and liking mindlessly as a chore,” Dilley said.

“I feel so much more at peace and I really don’t think I will ever go back to how frequently I used it. "

*Name changed at the source’s request.

Update made April 16, 2021 9:45 a.m.: A previous version had a typo in the third paragraph.