Although Gen Z rely on social media and networks for building identity and community, image-centric social media platforms such as Instagram are increasingly prevalent. Excessive social comparison and communication on these platforms can cause serious implications on body image, mental health, self-worth, and overall identity development for users. This paper will highlight the ways in which Instagram has facilitated detrimental implications on the identity development of Gen Z, and how this transcends into the wider community; on and offline.
I am a textbook millennial. Technically ‘Gen Z’ is the term I believe, but the lines between the two are consistently blurred. I am part of the first ever generation to grow up on the internet, and with social media at my fingertips from a very young (and likely questionable) age. Web 2.0 is something heavily engrained in my life and I candidly admit that I would be lost without it. I spend most of my spare time on social media, Google at least 20 insignificant facts per day, and have almost never turned to anything except the internet to learn or connect with others. The connectedness and boundless nature of the internet and social media is in many ways, incredible (Weeks, 2016). However, there are severe implications for young adults who have grown up on social media, specifically pertaining to their sense of identity (Weeks, 2016). Image based communication is at the forefront of modern social media (Newman, 2015). This can often encourage connectivity and self-expression. However, it can also inherently damage one’s journey in developing and expressing personal identity (Newman, 2015). Unhealthy ideals can develop within social media communities, which have consequences for peoples relationships with themselves and others, both online and offline (Newman, 2015). This paper examines the role of image-centric social media platforms such as Instagram in the development of Gen Z’s identity and self-worth.
Gen Z fundamentally builds their individual identities through image-centric platforms like Instagram (Weeks, 2016). The inherent focus on looks and image can be catastrophically damaging to adolescents, their development of self, and ultimately their mental health (Royal Society for Public Health, 2017). Instagram is one of the leading social media platforms with approximately 1 billion users worldwide (Chen, 2020). Of these active users, 71% are below 35 years of age, and 36% range between 13-24 years old (Chen, 2020). Every individual’s journey with their identity development is bound by their specific context, circumstances, and experiences. However, it is no secret that adolescence and young adulthood are persistently formative years (Stagnor & Walinga, 2014). Instagram being an image-centric app, is predominantly photo based communication (Newman, 2015). It is largely centred around putting the best version of yourself forward and curating a perfect set of images to convey your lifestyle. For young people, this importance placed on their self-image can be extremely harmful. According to a study conducted by the Royal Society for Public Health (2014), Instagram was ranked as the worst social media platform, in relation to facilitating poor mental health issues. Instagram did receive positive feedback for self-expression, community building and increased emotional support (due to being so connected) (Royal Society for Public Health, 2017). However, simultaneously Instagram was associated with the worst levels of anxiety, depression, self-hatred, bullying, and envy (Royal Society for Public Health, 2017). Recently Instagram, and other social media platforms alike have paved the way to a healthier online environment. Instagram has removed the ability for users to see each other’s number of likes on a post, to diminish the pressure people may feel to reach a certain amount of community engagement. While this is a great advancement and certainly a step in the right direction, this does not even come close to addressing the hard-hitting implications Instagram has caused. The generation of youths currently growing up online are experiencing more mental health issues and identity struggles, than ever before (Twenge, 2017). Teen depression and suicide rates have been on an increasing trajectory since 2011, and are continuing to rise steadily (Twenge, 2017). Scholars believe that Gen Z will suffer the largest mental health and identity disaster in decades, due to the anxiety and depression caused by the social media world (Twenge, 2017). These issues caused by platforms such as Instagram, transition with individuals into their adult lives and can have a large impact on one’s social skills and confidence. “In the next decade, we may see more adults who know just the right emoji for a situation, but not the right facial expression” (Twenge, 2017, para.44).
Additionally, Instagram can be damaging to the identity development process through facilitating constant social comparison. The social comparison theory is a psychological philosophy, initially outlined in 1954 by Leon Festinger (Dion, 2016). Festinger stated that humans have an engrained tendency to compare themselves to others, to evaluate their own self-worth and learn how to define their identity (Dion, 2016). Social comparison can be self-enhancing, through looking at an individual worse-off than yourself to feel higher and more confident (Dion, 2016). However, more commonly this model is seen in reverse (Dion, 2016). Humans often look to others who they deem superior to them, and proceed to feel down and worse about themselves as a result (Dion, 2016). This can lead to very detrimental perceptions about one’s self and can often skew identity development (Dion, 2016). While this social theory applies to all facets of life; historically, these comparisons would stretch to the people you interact with in your day-to-day lives. Potentially occurring with people at work, family, friends, people on television, in movies, or in magazines; but the interactions were relatively limited (Dion, 2016). Now, in the digital age, these comparisons expand from every corner of the earth, every social group, every age group, every economic group, etc. (Dion, 2016). The boundaries are essentially, limitless. A study published in 2015 concluded that frequent Instagram use is associated with depressive symptoms and negative social comparison, especially for those who follow strangers rather than people they also interact with offline. This further highlights the damaging implications of excessive social comparison and how this can be linked to poor mental health (Lup, Trub & Rosenthal, 2015). This is a fundamental issue seen on the Instagram platform. Instagram affords its users the ability to interact with hundreds, if not thousands of people per day. While this can offer a sense of community and connectivity, it inherently exacerbates the amount of people we are socially comparing ourselves to, day-in and day-out (Dion, 2016). That level of human stimuli is simply unnatural and a recipe for self-worth/identity disaster (Nesi & Prinstein, 2015).
Furthermore, another study, conducted by Nesi & Prinstein (2015) uncovered a clear link between interpersonal social comparison online and depressive tendencies among adolescents. As previously mentioned, social comparison is a normal part of identity construction. However, evidence shows that social media platforms, such as Instagram have exacerbated the limits of comparison; shifting this process from normal to ultimately threatening (Nesi & Prinstein, 2015). As an image centric app, people tend to selectively present themselves, only showcasing the highlights of their lives (Nesi & Prinstein, 2015). This is also, a natural human tendency; only wanting to post your best photo, conveniently taken on the perfect slimming angle, and only sharing the happiest of moments. It makes us feel strong and confident. However, having access to a billion individuals’ ‘life highlight reel’ can be extremely damaging; especially while uncovering your personal identity (Nesi & Prinstein, 2015). People subconsciously grow to feel inferior if they do not meet the standards they are constantly seeing through their screens. According to Uhls et al, (2011 as cited in Nesi & Prinstein 2015), “this will serve to intensify the issues of identity development and interpersonal connectedness, challenging adolescents to confront them with greater constancy and urgency” (p. 4). This issue isn’t limited to physical appearance dissatisfaction; we can see trends of people feeling career dissatisfaction, questioning their productivity, and even their sexuality due to social media comparisons (Johnson, 2014). Many perceive this constant whirlwind of interaction advantageous as it can prove inspiring or eye opening (Weeks, 2016). While this may be the case for some individuals, this never-before-seen interconnectedness may be the demise of our generation (Weeks, 2016).
Moreover, the overuse of online platforms can cause lasting negative effects on offline personal relationships. For many people, particularly adolescents, their main channel of communication to their friends and family, is through social media (Durlofsky, 2018). This can be a fantastic tool to keep distant relationships alive and communicate on a wide scale, within a short amount of time. However, this increasing reliance on online communication is simultaneously facilitating poor face-to-face communication skills (Durlofsky, 2018). Many people have become accustomed to posting a photo on Instagram and having their friends, family, and acquaintances comment niceties underneath it; or even more redundantly, give it a like to show their praise. While there isn’t anything inherently wrong with this system, we can see trends of poor in-person communication rising alongside the increase in online communication (Durlofsky, 2018). We are now more likely to discover news about people we know or love online, than we are in person (Durlofsky, 2018). Sharing personal information with the people we are invested in, is what bonds and drives strong relationships (Durlofsky, 2018). While we are categorically more connected than ever, there is evidence to suggest that meaningful, in-person relationships are suffering greatly, due to the lack of meaningful interaction. Communication facilitated on social media platforms are typically weak connections. This is why humans struggle to feel sincerely connected to those on the other side of the screen, in comparison to face-to-face interactions (Booth, 2012, as cited in Durlofsky, 2018).
Rising patterns of smartphone addiction can have damaging effects on individuals, but these implications transcend into the wider community, on and offline (Saiidi, 2017). While focussing on cultivating their Instagram persona and prioritising their presence online; they forget to form tactical and lasting memories in real life (Durlofsky, 2018). This leads to skewed identity development, as individuals are not experiencing the world as they should be, albeit through a lens (Saiidi, 2017). Young people are increasingly prioritising their time on social media, causing the demise of their person-to-person social interactions. This is causing Gen Z to become inherently less social in real life (contradictory, I know) (Saiidi, 2017). The concern is not directly about being active online, but more so that adolescents are becoming more interested in their online lives, than their real-life experiences with one-other (Durlofsky, 2018). As a generation that has been raised by the internet, online social sharing is going to remain largely prevalent (Saiidi, 2017). Though, this should not come as a top priority over face-to-face relationships; as these are what ultimately shape who we are and aid our identity development naturally (Saiidi, 2017). Humans are biologically social animals, so why do we so heavily prioritise our online persona, and virtual relationships? Humans, and particularly adolescents are fundamentally addicted to social media (Jones, 2018). Companies such as Instagram have meticulously developed their platforms to facilitate human reliance. From the design aesthetics, to the relevant platform stimuli; these aspects have all been employed to make Instagram a vital component of our daily lives (Jones, 2018). We must remain aware of this control that social media corporations hold over us; and re-learn to be social in real life, without documenting every second of it to feed the narrative of our online selves (Jones, 2018).
I openly observe and acknowledge the global connectedness that Instagram has aided in facilitating (Newman, 2015). It has been deemed as a hub of self-expression, inspiration, and community building (Newman, 2015). However, these advantages come at a severe cost. Being one of the leading social media platforms for individuals in their most formative years; Instagram poses a large threat to adolescents and their identity development (Chen, 2020). The platform has been linked to perpetuating a multitude of mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and eating disorders (Royal Society for Public Health, 2017). These trends are predominantly correlated to the boundless social comparison that the platform offers, causing individuals to question their appearance, lifestyle, ethical choices, interests, and overall identity (Dion, 2016). Furthermore, Instagram facilitates a community built upon showcasing the highlights of people’s lives, generating unrealistic and unattainable beauty and lifestyle standards (Nesi & Prinstein, 2015). This can leave individuals feeling unworthy, self-conscious, under-achieving, and generally sub-par to their virtual peers (Nesi & Prinstein, 2015). Finally, social media platforms such as Instagram are aiding the demise of strong in person relationships (Durlofsky, 2018). Generation Z is categorically addicted to social media, leading them to limit their experiences, and consequently hindering their ability for identity development (Jones, 2018). Social media has afforded this generation of adolescents a unique opportunity to grow up online. This can prove advantageous in many ways, providing an outlet for people to express themselves, connect with others, and find a community that they might not have offline (Johnson, 2014). However, I believe that the damages come at a greater cost. What is the point of nurturing a fortunate, well rounded and knowledgeable generation, if they are all riddled with self-doubt, unable to reach self-acceptance and ultimately struggling with their sense of identity.
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