Many Instagram users became dismayed when the number of likes on others’ posts disappeared on March 2. Instagram’s PR team rushed to Twitter to announce that this was an unintentional consequence of “testing a new experience to hide likes on Feed posts.” The numbers were restored and the world heaved a collective sigh of relief. However, Instagram should make these numbers invisible permanently as soon as possible in order to improve the mental health of Instagram users everywhere.
The first time Instagram announced that they were considering making likes private was in October 2019, so they’ve been mulling it over for a while. “We will make decisions that hurt the business if they help people’s well-being and health,” said Adam Mosseri, the company’s CEO, as reported by Wired. This sentiment should be taken with an eye roll and a grain of salt, as giant companies are usually lying when they claim to care about anyone’s well-being but their own. However, impact tends to matter more than intent when it comes to the actions of corporations, and the impacts of removing publicly displayed likes and followers would be significant.
The negative effects of social media are well-documented. One 2018 study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania discovered that limiting people’s social media access for just three weeks decreased levels of depression and loneliness. And there’s no doubt likes have a lot to do with this correlation. Observing the number of likes on people’s posts versus your own is a form of comparing yourself to others, which rarely has positive ramifications for anyone. If you happen to be doing worse off than the person to which you’re comparing yourself, there’s a good chance you’ll feel inadequate. You can’t help but wonder, “Why am I falling behind? Is there something wrong with me?”
As cognitive neurologist Ofir Turel said to PBS in 2019, “Imagine if every time you go to a bank, you get your balance, but you also see the balance of other people. It will cause most people to feel annoyed or dissatisfied with what they have.” One of the main reasons I choose not to use the app myself is because of its constant ruthless demonstrations of how you (don’t) measure up to other users.
Making like counts private would make it much more difficult to compare the “success” of your posts with the “success” of others’ posts. While this wouldn’t solve other problems with Instagram, such as conventional attractiveness making it easier to gain a large following and the fear of missing out that many users experience, it would certainly help solve some of the app’s issues and probably make the general environment much less toxic. Making likes private would make Instagram’s culture less about constantly comparing your level of success to others’, and more about unapologetic self-expression. Instagram should implement this change as soon as possible to improve the mental health of its users.