On New Year’s Eve in 2021, Taylor Bracher’s friend bailed on their skiing trip because she said her dog was sick. Later that evening, Bracher’s friend posted a slew of Instagram Stories of her skiing with other people all day long. So Bracher deleted the Instagram app from her phone.
“I didn’t know if it would be forever, but I knew I was sick of the negative emotions the platform was facilitating: FOMO, consumerism, empty connection, all of it,” Bracher told Mashable. Later that evening, she started a group chat with her friends who also decided to delete the app for similar reasons. It’s a place for them to send photos of dogs, babies, nature, food, and anything else they’d typically post on Instagram. They call it “Instaholics Anonymous.”
“The beauty of deleting Instagram has been that — poof! — all of the drama and negative emotions I experienced in the app went away. In an instant it wasn’t my problem anymore,” Bracher said.
I didn’t know if it would be forever, but I knew I was sick of the negative emotions the platform was facilitating: FOMO, consumerism, empty connection, all of it.
Hating Instagram is basically integral to the platform’s existence at this point. According to a September 2022 Instagram report leaked to The Wall Street Journal, Instagram engagement is declining, with Reels, in particular, seeing a significant drop-off in user engagement. Furthermore, just 10 percent of the most popular creators in 2023 use Instagram as their main platform, according to data from Higher Visibility, an SEO agency.
There’s been a seemingly perpetual, although futile, effort to replace the app with another platform that we might, for some unbelievable reason, enjoy more — apps like BeReal, Glass, Grainery, and even Tumblr and LinkedIn. And for good reason: Instagram makes us feel bad. In documents leaked to The Wall Street Journal, Facebook’s own research found that “Instagram is harmful to a sizable percentage of [teens], most notably teenage girls.” And, while young people face the brunt of the Instagram effect, no one is immune to it. According to the American Psychological Association, studies have linked Instagram to depression, body image concerns, self-esteem issues, social anxiety, and other problems. Trust in social media companies seems to be at an all-time low. So it comes as no surprise that users are trying to minimize Instagram’s harmful effects — and, sometimes, just the annoying things that make the app feel unusable, like the sheer number of ads on the platform and new features that try to do everything but fail to do anything well.
In one Reddit thread titled “Okay, we get it. Your feed is entirely ads,” dozens of users complain about their Instagrams feeds have become a steady stream of ads.
User HireLaneKiffin comments, “60 percent of the posts on my newsfeed are from accounts I do not follow — yet there are accounts I do follow who post regularly and I don’t ever see their posts.” Another user, ilivedownyourroad, adds, “It’s gone from all my follows to every other follow [an] ad to as of today a three to two ratio of ads and promoted follows from the worst people and things.”
There are some ways to counter the number, or type, of ads you’re seeing. Unfollowing businesses will decrease the number of ads from them you’ll see organically in your feed, while unfollowing celebrities and influencers will decrease the amount of in-feed sponsored content from them you consume. Unfollowing celebrities and influencers also has potential to decrease overall consumption — and increase feelings of self-worth. According to documents revealed by The Wall Street Journal’s Facebook Files, most people feel worse when they see celebrities and influencers in their Instagram feed because they compare themselves to the influencers they see.
Even beyond ads and influencers, Instagram is still not what we want it to be. The platform is well on its way to becoming a superapp, which, as Mashable has reported, sucks. It’s becoming a digital ecosystem all on its own, complete with online stores, sharing links, and everything you might like from other apps, like tweeting and Being Real and sharing TikTok videos.
Then there’s quantified popularity — the ability to see how many comments, likes, followers, views, and all of the other metrics people use to gauge successful content online — which has become the surefire way of keeping track of our digital scoreboards. Tech companies love them because they encourage user obsession with apps; influencers need them to prove their worth and land brand deals; and publications use them as a measure of engagement. Politicians and activists want to eliminate it completely in the hopes of making social media less terrible. Mental health experts, though, say there isn’t one easy cure for creating a version of social media that does what you want it to do — create community and connect people — without hurting users via metrics.
Putting the power of changing how Instagram affects users into the hands of the users themselves is a terrible way of enacting change. That’s why some people have just decided to delete their account, or remove the app from their phone. But that just isn’t an option for everyone, like those who depend on it for their livelihoods or who use the app as a primary form of communication with friends and family.
What people say they really want from the platform is a past version of Instagram. There’s a reason we look back on the old internet fondly. In the early days of social media, we used platforms like Instagram to “have fun and be ridiculous and post stuff for what you probably understood to be a limited audience,” Aimée Morrison, an associate professor in the department of English language and literature at the University of Waterloo, told Mashable in a previous article. Our friends saw our posts, but that was about it.
“The content was abundant, but the audience was not abundant. You imagined that nobody was interested,” Morrison said.
The idea of returning to a social media of abundance, before it became what it is today, is a pipe dream at best — social media has become an economy all on its own, one that puts capitalism first and users last. Deleting it isn’t an option for all users, but there are some ways to interact with just the parts of the app that you like. I asked my followers what they were doing to improve their relationship to Instagram, and a lot of them have very specific plans for the upcoming year, like:
Setting time limits on the app.
We check our smartphones between 85 and 101 times a day on average, Glamour reported. In 2019, we spent an average of two hours and 23 minutes every day on social media, and almost an hour of that time was spent on Instagram. And 39 percent of users say they use it “to fill up spare time,” which is a pretty bland defense for time spent on an app that can make us feel terrible.
Being more mindful of what we post.
One of my Instagram mutuals, Brianna Moore, said she is “working on detaching myself from Instagram more so it doesn’t play such a large role in my mental health and how I view myself connecting with others. This would involve trying to actually respond to things other people are posting on Instagram and starting conversations rather than passively viewing what others are posting.”
Taking more conscious breaks from the app by deleting it from our phones for a while.
Mashable’s Chloe Bryan takes frequent week-long breaks from Instagram by deleting the app off of her phone. She wouldn’t call it life-changing, but “a little break is nice every now and then.”
Being more selective about who we follow.
Cleaning up who you follow is one of the most cathartic feelings I have ever had. Every time I do it, it feels better than the previous time. Sarah Erickson, an Instagram mutual, told me she “unfollowed a lot of accounts that I wasn’t interested in anymore or which I thought could be causing my feed to be too ‘capitalism buy this buy this’ vibe.” Now, Erickson tries to keep her Instagram tied to family, friends, local events accounts, and local news. You are what you follow.
Being more aware of how the app is working against our mental health.
“I really hate the way posting on my main account causes me so much stress,” Keagan Roberts, a former South Berwick town council member and Instagram mutual, told Mashable. “I have an unreasonable fixation on likes. I have gotten better over the years but I still obsess about likes. Even though I’ve taken steps like removing like counts from my posts, I still focus on the number. I have always had this problem with Instagram, and it causes me not to post frequently as it is always a source of stress.”
Protecting your privacy.
If privacy is one of your fears, there are ways you can safeguard your privacy on Instagram. You can hide your location data, block people, manually approve posts you’re tagged in, limit your hashtag use, and, of course, go private.
Hiring out where you can.
Michael Kadnar, a musician and label-owner, uses Instagram to get work. So, this year, he hired someone to take over his professional Instagram so he doesn’t have to spend as much time or effort on the app.
Only using some parts of the app.
Instagram has become such a huge part of our society because it can really do everything. One of my mutuals, Philip Gialopsos, described Instagram as a “jack of all trades that still excels at facilitating many of my personal connections through its DMs.” So, if you find that you can’t delete the app because messaging is too big a part of your life, then simply only use messaging; only use Stories; refuse to scroll through your feed; do whatever it is that makes you enjoy the experience more this year.
Instagram isn’t going anywhere — so perhaps it’s time to consider reevaluating our relationship with it.