Staying sane on Instagram
I was recently reading a couple of articles in The Guardian (here and here) about social media and smartphone addiction — the way that the technology is designed to make users seek continual affirmation, and the addictive feedback loop of likes and comments. It’s scary stuff. I started to think about my own consumption of social media and its impact on my life and the lives of those around me, in particular my children, who no doubt see me checking my phone far more than I’d like them to.
I’m old enough to have had an analogue childhood. I got my first mobile phone when I was at university, and it had no internet connection (yes, I really am that old). You had to use a dial-up modem to get online. During my childhood I only had access to a handful of free-to-air TV channels and a VHS video player. It was vastly different to the experience my own children will have. And I’ve noticed that my ability to concentrate has been hugely affected since I got my first smartphone.
I’ve also noticed a phenomenon on Instagram recently where various people I follow have declared they’re having a detox — that social media generally and the pressure to post daily on Instagram has gotten to the point where it’s having a negative impact on their lives. We’re all expected to provide regular, high quality, semi-professional content, all of the time. I certainly experience that pressure too. And to me it feels like these days on Instagram, you can’t just post a good quality image, it has to be a really exceptional image to shine in the eyes of the algorithm. There are just so many people, posting so many great photos.
On the one hand, that raising of the bar can be a good thing — it forces us to lift our game as photographers. But it also encourages sameness, and it discourages people from taking risks with their content or changing direction for fear of alienating their followers. You can see the effects of this pressure on Instagrammers who will delete a post after half an hour if it’s not doing well. In particular, if you’re someone who wants to get paid work out of Instagram, then only allowing those posts that do really well to appear on your feed makes a kind of sense.
There’s another issue to consider, which is time. I don’t know about you, but I have a whole lot of other stuff to do in my everyday life — hold down an actual salaried day job, raise my kids, run a household, and maintain some semblance of a social life. I’m very restricted in terms of when I can get out on my own to take photos, and it’s hard to justify spending excessive amounts of time on what is essentially a hobby.
So, to the big question — how do we stay sane on Instagram? How do we use it in a way that isn’t unhealthy, that ensures our continued enjoyment of it, allows us to stay inspired, and doesn’t overly distract us from our actual, real, much more important lives? Well, there are a few things you can do to keep your relationship with Instagram healthy:
1. Turn off notifications if you haven’t already done so. You can do this by going to your profile and clicking on the three dots in the top right-hand corner. Scroll down to “Push notification settings”, and you can turn off notifications for likes, comments, and a whole load of other things. You can also mute Stories if there are particular people you follow whose Stories you’d rather not see — at the top of your feed, tap and hold the profile picture of the person whose story you'd like to mute, then select Mute.
2. Get yourself an alarm clock and stop using your phone as your alarm (I know you’re doing it, because so am I!). Put your phone in the kitchen after dinner, and don’t check it till the morning. Use your evenings to read a book, or cook, or do something which allows you to just be in the moment without the continual temptation to check your phone. I realised recently how much I miss reading, and it’s because in the evenings, once my kids are in bed, I tend to check Instagram instead. I’m ashamed to admit that I still have books on my bedside table that I got last Christmas that I still haven’t finished reading.
3. Don’t feel that you have to respond to every single comment on every single post. I try and keep up with comments, but sometimes I simply don’t have the mental energy to respond to every one, although I do usually read them all. If that’s the case, and real life has gotten in the way of Instagram life, then there’s always the option of “liking” a comment, but not writing back. It can feel a little bit impolite at times, but sometimes my need to preserve my own sanity takes precedence. The same with Direct Messages — I can’t always respond to every person who messages me. And I think that’s OK — you have to draw the line somewhere, and there’s only so much of myself I’m willing to give to the world.
4. Don’t compare yourself to others. Instagram is awash with great images, and there will always be someone who is doing better and growing faster than you are. In Instagram as in life — try to post your best work and have the confidence to follow your own creative path without focusing too much on what other people are up to. And if you need to vent (and let’s face it, we all do now and then), then find yourself an Instagram buddy or two to share your thoughts with, who understands where you’re coming from and can help you to laugh about it all if it’s getting to you.
5. Don't feel you need to post every single day. With the change to a non-chronological feed, if a post is doing well, then sometimes it’s worth having a day off and letting that post run its course. Many of us are in the habit of posting daily, but if you start to feel like you’re going through the motions and your heart's not in it, then take a day or two off. Or take longer, and come back when you’re feeling refreshed and when you’ve regained your enthusiasm for what you’re posting. Maybe you need to re-think your direction. Maybe you need a new challenge. Or maybe you still like what you’re posting but you’d simply like to take it more slowly for a little while and recharge your batteries. All those things are totally fine, and you know what? You don’t even need to tell us you’re doing it!! I know Instagram can feel a little public and exposed sometimes, but I genuinely believe that there really aren’t that many people who notice or care what I get up to on Instagram, and most of them probably don’t have a clue how long it is since I last posted.
6. Don’t be afraid to mix it up a little. I know it’s tempting to just post the same things as everyone else, or things you know will do well because they’ve done well for others, or even because you’ve posted a photo before and it did well and now you’re re-posting the same image because you don’t have anything new to share (I see this more and more on Instagram). But it’s worth challenging ourselves to find a new place, or a new angle, or something fresh to say, in order to maintain the enthusiasm we had when we first joined Instagram. Always posting the same thing can feel really restrictive. The people who are engaged with what you do will follow you even if you change direction, and the ones that don’t? Well, maybe they were never that engaged anyway. Posting new kinds of images, or new places, can allow us to reach a new audience. Maybe you take a short-term hit on the numbers because you have a longer term vision, and that’s perfectly fine. Go for it, and have some fun!
7. Remember that social media apps are designed to be addictive. There’s a reason why you feel the need to compulsively check your phone — you get a little rush of feel-good chemicals when people engage with what you’ve posted. It’s really not your fault. But you can wean yourself off that to some degree by restricting the times when you allow yourself access to your phone, and by remembering that none of it reflects on who you are as a person, or even your abilities as a photographer, particularly. If you’re doing well on Instagram, you probably take a decent photo, but more importantly you’ve figured out some of the rules of the game and you’ve mastered them more than others have. Just remember that the real you is more important than the image you project on Instagram, and looking after your own self and taking any time you need to recharge is more important than staying up to date with an app. We’ll all still be here when you come back.
What are your thoughts on social media and Instagram? Does it distract you too much from your real life? Do you hate how often you check your phone? Does social media make you feel bad about yourself? Or do you enjoy it as pure escapism and inspiration?