Instagram’s Deceiving “Reality”

A young woman scrolling through Instagram.

A young woman scrolling through Instagram.

Our culture has lost the ability to be bored. Whenever we have a few seconds where we aren’t doing anything, we immediately reach for our phones and open some app that gives us a little bit of entertainment. Whether it be TikTok or Instagram, there is always some form of content that we can watch. Our phones have become a primary part of our day, from the alarm that wakes us up, to the device which connects us to our loved ones, wherever they may be. A 2019 Common Sense Media report found that, on average, teens spend more than 7 hours a day on their phone. That is almost ⅓ of their time.

Another trademark of our society in the 2000s is a significant increase in depression among teens, especially teen girls. According to a 2020 US national survey on drug use and health, the percentage of teenagers who had a depressive episode went up from about 12% in 2004 to 30% in 2020. And teenage girls maintained significantly higher percentages than teen boys throughout the whole time. According to JAMA Network, rates of suicide and self harm among teen girls from 2010 to 2014 almost doubled while those same rates were almost unchanged for their male counterparts and women over the age of 20. Does the use of social media affect the mental health of teens, and if so, what can we do to prevent the harm that is occurring?

You can cite the evidence of studies done by scientists declaring percentages and reasons based on analysis, but the most overwhelming evidence is from the actual users and their experience rather than experiments. I am what I like to call a “delete-prone” Instagram user. I download the app, love it for a while, realize how it’s affecting my mental health, delete it, then have a moment where I’m bored or someone I know posted and I download it again just to delete it in a couple weeks. It’s a common trend among people I associate with.There are also the “aesthetic-maintaining” users who keep the app in order to keep up their aesthetically pleasing feed. And of course there are the “post-on-holidays-birthdays-special-events-and-social-justice” users who post pretty consistently and make up a significant percentage of users in our generation. However, the majority of Instagram users my age are on the app, but they never really post anything. Not to call anyone out, it’s just an observation. So what the majority of teen girls do on the app is take in information, especially about how they should be living their lives.

The problem with this is that our brains are not fully developed. What’s happening is that we are at a key moment in our identity-forming journey; we’re trying to figure out how we fit into the world, what our likes and dislikes are, who our friends are, and how to accept ourselves for who we are. And at this key moment, teen girls (boys too, but their problem is video games…) are spending hours on Instagram, a “social media” literally designed to show your life to the world. It’s meant to give life updates to connect you with people you know and even people you don’t know, but if you don’t have a life, what are you supposed to do with it? 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you’re a loser. I’m just saying you’re still in the figuring-out stage, and you should still be in the figuring-out stage. All this social media, especially Instagram, is flooding susceptible minds with millions of expectations for what your life needs to be. In opening the app just now, it suggested that I’m “not too young to share my beliefs,” doing my nails will help me to “feel more put together,” happiness is found at the beach, and that you can’t live your best life without bread. Some of those were direct quotes. (I re-deleted it if anyone’s wondering.) 

The truth is, we are not as “used to” this as we think, and we’re not unaffected by it either. Whether you can tell it’s doing that or not, it’s affecting you and the way that you experience the world. Because our brains are in such a critical time of growth, consistent exposure to these expectations can have significant consequences. The pressure to be a certain way leads to anxiety, the idea that we are “less than” can lead to depression, and a fear of missing out – which can lead to loneliness.

Instagram and other forms of social media are forcing us to grow up. We spend so much time on these apps which are meant to connect people and share content, and we lose time to actually live. Social media is not reality, so when we spend time on it, it’s like spending time in a different reality. A different reality that is composed solely of people’s best moments, the times that they did the most fun things and had the coolest friends and achieved perfection. And there’s nothing wrong with experiencing a different reality — books and movies do that too. But Instagram is deceiving; it makes it seem like it IS reality. The more time we spend on it, the harder it becomes to tell that it’s all fake, or at least not the whole truth. 

So my advice to you? Recognize this fact: Social media is not necessary for society to function. And what you see on it cannot be deemed truth. You make the decision what to do with that information. I’m not saying that Instagram has to be obliterated completely and teenagers should not use it, I’m saying that you may have to reevaluate the way that you spend your time. If you find that you can use social media without an effect on your well-being, or that while you use social media, it’s easy for you to recognize that it’s not always accurate, then go right ahead. But if you’re like me, “delete-prone” and conscious of the effect that it has on you, I would recommend spending less time on Instagram, at least for a while, so that when you do use it, it’s more positive. 

Before we can recognize that Instagram is not reality and the expectations it has for us are not accurate, it’s not beneficial for us to be immersed in its world. Taking time off from social media is almost cleansing, and it can help to have perspective on its pros and cons and why it even exists in the first place. But whoever you are, the next time you’re bored, try a little social experiment for me: don’t pick up your phone or some other distraction, just pause for a second. And see what happens. 


Theresa Marcucci ‘23, Faith Editor