The Healthy Way to Scroll Through Instagram

Research suggests the photo-sharing app can soothe depression symptoms… if you use it right

Illustration: Terrell Davis

LLots of things in life make me feel shitty. Shopping at Forever 21, buying jeans, and phone calls with my mother where she tells me how successful all the children of her friends are. But when I’m feeling blue, I have a surefire way to cheer myself up: my Instagram account.

Yes, I know that social media is the proverbial wicked witch these days, cited as the reason for rising rates of depression and a spike in self-harm and eating disorders. I’ve seen the studies: frequent use can increase psychological distress and loneliness, and distract people from exercise and sleeping.

But what’s not talked about is that Instagram’s power cuts both ways. For many — myself included — scrolling through Instagram alleviates those feelings of misery and FOMO. Here’s the trick: I scroll through the photos I’ve posted.

Look at it this way: my Insta-stream is a curated feed of my happy moments. I only upload photos from memorable events — camping with friends, adorable corgis on the beach, nerd conventions, and so on. When I feel down and think that life is worthless, and that I have nothing to get out of bed for, my Insta-feed shows me that my synapses are clouding reality. There’s a scientific explanation for this.

Focusing on happy memories is a well-known therapeutic trick for battling the blues. In 2015, researchers at MIT found they could reverse symptoms of depression in mice by reactivating happy memories formed before the onset of the disorder. Positively reinforcing past good times helped build new ones. Mice may not be ideal for human comparisons — but the scientists’ findings help explain why reminiscent therapy (commonly used for people with dementia) is so successful at treating depression. The MIT researchers long-term goal is to light up the sections of the brain where those memories are stored, bypassing the need for drugs that indiscriminately target cells.

A study from Cambridge University published earlier this year investigated whether recalling positive memories could alleviate two signs of depression: negative thoughts and high cortisol levels in the morning. Their longitudinal study used data from 427 at-risk people, and, long story short, yes, it did. The cortisol level in people who’d recalled pleasant memories actually dropped as measured through saliva tests.

Of course, I don’t have to go on Instagram to look at sentimental pictures. I could scroll through my camera roll, or even dig out some physical pre-2000 albums, you know, from when people liked things printed. But I take so many pictures. I have pics of my food, a funny sign, a tax bill. It takes energy to go through all of that to get to the happy points — and to remember what they are when I’m low. The average iPhone user takes more than 2,000 photos a year — the volume is too stressful to sort through. With Instagram, I’ve curated that noise down to a serviceable stream of my very best memories.

“Remembering the good times may help build resilience to stress and reduce vulnerability to depression in young people,” Adrian Dahl Askelund, lead author of the Cambridge study, said in a press release. One way to increase access to those memories is journaling, he noted. And what is Instagram, if not a photo journal?

Don’t use social media in lieu of seeking professional help.

If you want to get more granular, Dr. Alice Good, a human computing professor at the University of Portsmouth, dove into this exact question, examining how social media posts and pictures impacted mental health. In preliminary research conducted at Portsmouth University and published in the 2013 Online Communities and Social Computing, she analyzed what impact reminiscing through Facebook posts had on people’s well-being. To do this, she assessed the Facebook use patterns of a small survey sample — 144 people, with a mean age of 34 years. Good found that 75% of those surveyed said they looked at their photos to boost their mood. Of special interest to her was that people with pre-existing mental health issues reported a greater mood boost when looking at photos than those without. “We were very surprised by these findings, which contradict some recent reports,” Good said in a press release.

“Spending time reflecting on happy memories can be helpful when starting to feel sad or down,” says Rachel O’Neill, an Ohio-licensed professional clinical counselor who works at Talkspace, an online therapy startup. “It might not be possible to simply think away depressive feelings, but it might help to alleviate that feeling of being immersed in sadness.” She cautioned that what works for one person might not for another — it can be a tool, but don’t use social media in lieu of seeking professional help.

“Mindful social media use is key,” said O’Neill. “Try to avoid mindless scrolling and try to set limits on your daily use. It’s up to you how much time you want to allot to yourself for your use but, for example, 20 to 30 minutes might be a good start.” O’Neill encourages people to rate their mood before and after opening their apps; this helps determine its influence on your mood.

Of course, people process through social media in different ways. Heidi Fischer, a 36-year-old support worker from Saskatoon, Canada, uses her Instagram, @mentalhealthyxe, to journal her battle with the dark side. Her posts include cute affirmations and honest accounts of her struggles with medication, surviving suicide, and maintaining friendships. She finds comfort in the comments. “You’re feeling crappy and that’s okay,” wrote a follower.

She started her account in 2017, and it’s grown to 2,886 followers with a core group of 20 people who she said check in with her most days. She often polls her followers on their struggles. In the past, 89% have reported difficulty maintaining friendships, 92% said they felt they were a disappointment to others, and 97% said they lacked energy.

She’s surprised and touched by their attention. “It’s about feeling you’re not the only one,” she theorizes. She regularly skims through her old posts. “It’s like a yearbook,” she said. For her, it’s a way to check in with where she is now; her posts mark turning points in her life. “It’s interesting,” she said — noting that two months ago, she “wasn’t doing good and was posting a lot of complaints.” Now that her rough period has passed, she has a record of what she’s accomplished.

Surprisingly, she’s had no trolls. “The worst thing I get is people selling me stuff,” she said — and she deletes those comments. Fischer knows that Instagram isn’t always helpful, so she stays away from celebrity accounts and primarily follows mental health bloggers and wellness hashtags. “They give me encouragement,” she said.

Fischer’s part of a growing cohort of sad ‘grammers — people who own their emotions on the platform. There’s also Elyse Fox and her Sad Girls Club, Jameela Jamil’s I Weigh community, Crazy Head Comics, and Alec MacDonald’s @alecwithpen Insta-feed, which documents his clinical depression in cartoons.

As this space is still nascent, there’s a dearth of established research on the topic. Bethan Daisy Elliot, a psychology student at Cardiff University, documented the emergence of these “recovery” accounts in a 2018 paper titled, Helpful or Harmful?; The role of Instagram in the recovery from Major Depressive Disorder. “[These accounts] document their struggles and attempted recovery from mental illness,” she wrote, estimating that around 1.2 million recovery accounts are active right now. “The answer is not clear-cut,” she concluded; while Instagram can help mental health and mood, it can also lead people into a vicious cycle of depression.

Instagram is aware of the power it has — to harm and to help — and is taking steps to become cognizant of its audience’s needs. One strategy the company has taken is restricting the number of likes a social media post can receive. “We are testing this because we want your followers to focus on the photos and videos you share, not how many likes they get,” a Facebook company spokesperson told me over email. Instagram has also added report tools for when you believe a poster might need help, and will connect a user who seems to be in trouble to a helpline, and give them tips on how to feel better.

“For people who say Instagram is bad, I’d say they’re wrong,” said Fischer. “It’s helped me create a little community and feel supported by it.” She’s right — nothing is inherently good or bad, it’s how you use it that makes the difference. And for Fischer, and me, sometimes a good picture or a nice comment is all it takes to make the world feel a little brighter that day.

Tech+Culture f/lance journo. Bylines: OneZero, Marker, Atlantic, Forbes, etc. Pre-order: The Future of Science Is Female

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