The notion that Instagram is bad for our mental health isn’t new. The Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) in the U.K. polled almost 1,500 young adults about the mental and emotional side effects of the most popular social media platforms. Between Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, and YouTube, Instagram use resulted in the lowest body image, anxiety, and depression scores.
And it’s not hard to figure out why.
Between all the #flawless selfies, scenic #nofilter vacation pics and throwbacks, “Seeing friends constantly on holiday or enjoying nights out can make young people feel like they are missing out.” As the report says, “These feelings can promote a ‘compare and despair’ attitude.”
So, how can we protect our mental and emotional well-being without quitting the platform entirely (though that’s absolutely an option)?
Mental health experts say it comes down to using — and using liberally — the mute and block function.
“People are reticent to press the mute or block functions, but it can be a really healthy thing to do,” echoes Brooklyn-based psychotherapist Aimee Barr, LCSW.
We spoke to experts about the types of accounts we should consider blocking.
Blocking them: It’s easier said than done, but it can make your personal growth way easier.
In fact, a 2012 study looking at 464 participants found that staying friends with an ex on Facebook was associated with a more difficult emotional recovery from a breakup and less personal growth. Barr says the same can be assumed as true for other social platforms.
If you’re considering blocking your ex, ask yourself:
- What do I gain from following my ex?
- Could blocking them help me get over the relationship faster?
- How does seeing their content make me feel?
- How would I feel if I blocked them?
- Could my ex following me put me in any kind of danger?
If the split was amicable, Shadeen Francis, LMFT, a marriage and family therapist specializing in sex therapy and social justice, says it can speed up the healing process.
“Quite often the hardest part of a breakup is creating new routines that don't involve your former partner,” she says. “Keeping them a part of your digital space can keep you from moving on or breaking old habits of thinking about them, being curious about how they are, or reaching out.”
And if your ex was toxic, the block could be essential to your safety. As Francis says, “Taking space is healing, and you need and deserve to heal.”
If you ended on good terms, Barr suggests letting them know you’re planning to block them in order to avoid miscommunication online, especially if your social circles overlap.
Then, when you’re ready to consider unblocking them, Rebecca Hendrix, LMFT, an integrative holistic psychotherapist in New York, suggests following this guideline: “When you no longer feel any surge of energy when you think of your ex, you may be in a place to unblock them.”
But, she says it’s OK if you never unblock them because you don’t want them to have access to your content.
If you’ve ever stumbled across a picture or caption that’s made you feel not-so-hot about your body, or eating and fitness habits, you’re not alone, says Courtney Glashow, LCSW, founder and psychotherapist of Anchor Therapy LLC.
“There are a lot of ‘diet,’ ‘health,’ ‘fitness,’ and ‘wellness’ accounts out there that are actually really harmful,” she adds.
While she says you should try to eliminate people who aren’t certified, educated, and experienced experts, you’ll also want to avoid people who spread health values that can be mentally and emotionally harmful. These could be accounts that celebrate weight loss, before and after photos, or only showcase one version of health.
KonMari your follows by asking yourself:
- Does this post make you feel less happy?
- Does this account make or try to make you feel jealous, ugly, insecure, or ashamed?
- Does this account promote products? Is this account trying to sell you something?
- Can you tell that the reality of this person’s life doesn’t match what they’re promoting or posting?
- Is this person promoting one specific way of eating?
If the answer is yes to any of the above questions, Glashow says this account is the opposite of a net-positive in your life. “This account might actually extremely harmful, especially for someone who is recovering from an eating disorder, disordered eating, or fitness addiction.”
Remember: Fitspiration is only fitspiration if it inspires, not dispirits.
When going through a physical transformation it can feel very empowering to see visual results and reaffirming to share them with others, says Barr.
“But it is very different to follow accounts that value your commitment to wellness, strength, and perseverance to obtain a goal than it is to follow accounts that make you feel like you need to obtain a specific body.”
That’s why Glashow suggests that if you’re looking for health advice, limit it to registered dietitians and certified personal trainers who speak with knowledge, not shame. These five nutrition influencers are a good place to start. Or follow those who abide by Health at Every Size principles.
From an algorithm perspective, adjunct professor of marketing at Baruch College Robb Hecht says replacing negative accounts with positive accounts will also give your Instagram feed and discover page a makeover.
“The Instagram algorithm serves you the type of content that you interact with and you show intent toward. [B]locking or muting negative accounts will keep help you from [seeing and] not clicking on diet ads, which result in Instagram feeding less diet content and more of the content that you are interacting with.”
Sex-negative accounts may be harder to spot, but Barr defines them as “any account that implies that sex is shameful or makes you feel bad about the kind of sex you have or are not having.” According to her, accounts that make you feel like you need to be sexier or share more sexualized photos of yourself may fall into this category too.
Unfollow the account if it makes you feel:
- like you’re not having enough sex, or are having too much
- shame for having, or not having, a certain kind of sex
- like you need to be more sexual on- or offline, or you’re not sexual enough
Every action you make on Instagram is being carefully monitored and fed into a machine learning system, explains digital marketing executive Katherine Rowland. “If it notices you are not, or no longer, looking at a certain type of content, eventually it will stop presenting you with it.”
“We should never be forced to tolerate or minimize the harm caused by derogatory comments based on race, religion, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, or appearance,” says Barr. “And that includes family.”
Maybe you have a relative who shares articles, photos, or status updates that trigger your anxiety. Maybe they tend to argue with you in the comments section. Whatever the reason, the benefit of blocking certain family member can be two-fold: Not only will it keep you from seeing their content, but it will keep them from seeing yours.
“It is acceptable to limit who has access to your digital life to only those who are kind, supportive, and loving toward you,” says LGBT expert and mental health professional Kryss Shane, MS, MSW, LSW, LMSW. “Anyone who works to undermine your happiness or your safety has behaved in a way that has earned them any limitations they receive.”
You shouldn’t ever have to apologize for the boundaries you need. But if a family member questions you on this move, Barr suggests explaining that their account makes you uncomfortable, disrespected, or unloved so you’ve chosen to remove it from your view.
“Following news outlets can be informative and helpful to know what's going on in the world. But it can also become too much, obsessive, and/or depressing,” says Glashow.
And with so many different social and news platforms available for political discourse and local and national news, she says it’s OK if you don’t want Instagram to be one of those platforms.
Shane agrees, adding, “Any image or story that indicates ‘you may be in danger’ can trigger negative reactions, and thoughts and feelings about ourselves, and may be worth a block.”
Because violence against minority groups is disproportionately high, news about these incidents and discrimination often dominate our social feeds. “This messaging almost guarantees that minority groups will sometimes struggle with feeling unheard, unseen, and unwanted in society from Instagram,” says Shane.
If seeing these images on your Instagram feeds makes you feel anxious, in danger, unsafe, or devalued, Shane says you may consider unfollowing. “Especially if that account or brand has a history of reporting fake news.”
Blocking news accounts on Instagram won’t keep you out-of-the-loop on need to know happenings, but it may help you make sure that your Instagram feed doesn’t cause a shame-spiral, panic attack, or generalized.
Another option? “If you don’t want to unfollow the news outlets, counter it by following cute puppy accounts or other accounts you know will make you smile,” suggests Glashow.
Megan M. Zaleski, social media manager with HeraldPR, recommends the puppy-following strategy, too. “The way to influence what types of accounts show up is to follow and engage with content you want to see.”
There’s no one-size-fits-all rule for what accounts are bad for your mental health. That’s why Hendrix offers this advice: “Any account that is causing you to feel more stress is an account that you might consider blocking.”
If you find yourself unfollowing basically every account on Instagram, that’s fine.
“There might be something for you to learn about yourself in the process. It can show you where you might need to do a little work on yourself mentally and emotionally,” says Hendrix.
The example she gives is this: If your bestie from college posts photos of her amazing beach house in Malibu and it routinely turns your stomach, it’s more than OK to unfollow her.
“But you also want to ask yourself why that gets your stomach in knots. Do you think that not having a Malibu beach pad means that you’re a failure? Is it because you’re not happy for your friend? Are you making something not about you, about you?”
Asking yourself these questions can help you figure out if there are other things you can be doing to give your mental health a boost, in addition to cleansing your digital space.
In the end, “Whatever the case may be, you are entitled to protecting your digital space and setting the boundaries that you need for your well-being,” says Shadeen. Blocking someone even if you know them IRL isn’t selfish, it’s self-care because you’re crafting your own space online.
And if you find yourself feeling down after a scroll, check out these five mental health influencers for a friendly dose of self-love and mental health realness.
Gabrielle Kassel is a New York-based sex and wellness writer and CrossFit Level 1 Trainer. She's become a morning person, tried the Whole30 challenge, and eaten, drank, brushed with, scrubbed with, and bathed with charcoal — all in the name of journalism. In her free time, she can be found reading self-help books, bench-pressing, or pole dancing. Follow her on Instagram.