Instagram vs. reality : risk factors that make an adolescent more vulnerable to engage in an upwards social comparison on Instagram, resulting in poorer mental health : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Clinical Psychology at Massey University, Albany, New Zealand
Aim: For the past two decades researchers have been trying to understand how social media is affecting an individual’s mental health, however, social media platforms are rapidly changing, and new social media platforms are being developed and integrated into an adolescent’s life at a rapid rate. Therefore, research is quickly becoming outdated with a significant lag between the literature and social media existing.
Instagram is an increasingly popular photo sharing social media application that offers individuals the opportunity to post photos of their lives. A consequence of Instagram being photo based is that users often apply impression management strategies, so that only the best parts of their life are presented. This creates a ripe environment for upwards social comparisons to occur, as the Instagram user compares their realities to the unrealistic images presented on Instagram. In particular, adolescents may be at risk of engaging in upwards social comparisons on Instagram, as they are the largest consumers of social media, and they are at a developmental period where social comparisons are crucial for constructing one’s identity and navigating the social world. However, little is known about how the positively skewed Instagram environment is impacting an adolescent’s mental health, which is concerning given the poor adolescent mental health statistics in New Zealand.
Preliminary research from Instagram and other social media platforms, suggests that when individuals engage in upwards social comparisons on social media, it can lead to psychological distress. However, research has also suggested a poor get poorer effect is occurring, meaning only individuals who have certain vulnerability factors are at risk of engaging in an upwards social comparison, and thus experiencing the adverse psychological outcomes. Therefore, scholars have called for research to identify these vulnerability factors to enable a more nuanced understanding to be established.
The aim of the current study was to focus on what vulnerability factors make an adolescent at risk of engaging in an upwards social comparison on Instagram, and subsequently experience depression and worry symptoms. The vulnerability factors that were of interest include: self-esteem, social comparison orientation, self-concept clarity, passive Instagram use, intensity of Instagram use and gender. This research hopes to provide mental health professionals with information regarding modern triggers that may be contributing to the high prevalence of youth depression and anxiety disorders, in order to guide prevention measures and interventions.
Method: 853 adolescents in Auckland, New Zealand, between the ages of 13 and 19 years old completed an online questionnaire. The questionnaire consisted of standardised scales to measure the constructs of interest, demographic questions and questions regarding Instagram use. Structural Equation Modelling was then utilised to test the hypotheses using a mediation model and a moderated mediation model, to determine whether the data corresponded well to the hypothesised models.
Results: The results offered evidence that supported the poor get poorer effect for personality factors only. As it was identified that adolescents who have the personality traits of: a tendency to compare their abilities with others and have a low self-concept clarity are more likely to engage in an upwards social comparison on Instagram, resulting in greater depression and worry symptoms. The Instagram usage variables of: passive Instagram use and using Instagram intensely were not identified as risk factors for engaging in an upwards social comparison on Instagram. When looking at the gender effects it was identified that vulnerable females experienced more dire outcomes than males, as comparing ones’ abilities with others was only a risk factor for females and low self-concept clarity was a greater risk factor for females than males.
Conclusion: The current study supported the idea that the false positive impressions displayed on Instagram can be detrimental for some adolescents’ psychological wellbeing and could possibly be contributing to New Zealand’s poor adolescent mental health statistics. The current study highlights the negative psychological impact that Instagram can have on an adolescent’s mental health, when they compare their realities to the positively skewed environment. This is concerning as social media is becoming deeply embedded into many adolescents’ lives. Therefore, this research prompts future research to further identify adolescents who are considered at risk so public health messages and interventions can be targeted towards these individuals.