Tapping little circles is fun, but checking in with your real circles is where it’s really at.

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I’m always tapping little circles.

If I told you a decade ago that “little circles” give me intimate views into the lives of others, you’d probably assume I was some creepy neighbor with binoculars. It’s a fair assumption based on the verbiage.

These days, you might’ve guessed that I’m talking about Instagram Stories. In other words, the 24-hour life highlight reel that’s taken the main stage in social media.

I don’t know about you, but these little circles chockfull of human experience have grown to take up quite a bit of my attention.

Whether it’s so-and-so’s artfully-decorated caramel macchiato or Random Guy From College’s trip to the Adidas store, I find myself drawn to the storytelling within Instagram Stories, even when it’s mind-numbingly simple.

In a world where “did you see my story” is such a common phrase, it begs the question: What’s up with Instagram Stories and their pervasive presence in our lives?

When these oh-so-tappable circles launched back in August 2016, I scoffed at the blatant likeness to Snapchat, vowing to skip the feature entirely.

One year post-launch, Instagram reached 150 million users on Stories, according to marketing analytics company 99firms. That number doubled to 300 million by the final quarter of 2017.

Powerless against the trend, I caved.

Enter 2021, over 500 million people interact with Instagram Stories on the daily. We’ve become engrossed in these little circles, a bizarre digital universe where authentic human emotion rubs shoulders with calculatingly designed advertisements.

So, who’s really in charge here?

On top of the addictive qualities of social media that most are already aware of, Instagram Stories fuel new levels of compulsion. These rapid-fire segments loop us in and keep us hooked with every tap, with a more involved narrative that seizes attention.

Yep, even when mindlessly tapping through Some Dude from High School’s low-quality concert videos for 38 seconds straight, you’re hooked.

“Instagram Stories work a bit like Netflix episodes, and just like them, we’re compelled to binge-watch. The fact that they’re quick makes it even more compelling to watch one after the other,” says Dr. Raffaello Antonino, a counseling psychologist and the clinical director and founder of Therapy Central.

Like a pacifier for our brains, this content was specifically designed to whisk us away from the responsibilities of reality even faster than other social feeds.

Persuasive design is a psychology-based practice that focuses on influencing human behavior through the characteristics or design of a product or service. It’s used in everything from the public health sector to e-commerce.

“Companies may not realize they’ve set up a vicious cycle where, like with drug addiction, the user ends up either being destroyed by the substance misused, or turned entirely against it,” says Antonino. “Is this what tech companies using persuasive design would like to achieve?”

It’s deeper than structural design alone. The fact that Instagram Stories are generally less manicured than feed posts also contributes to their lure, says Antonino.

Social media dumbs down the full truth, but I’ve seen far more emotional openness on Instagram Stories compared to other places on social media.

A survey conducted by Facebook revealed that people feel they can be more authentic, since the content in stories disappears after 24 hours unless saved to a profile highlight.

Trading responses on each other’s stories, I’ve become “internet friends” with people I’ve never even met.

“Users can interpret Stories as lighter and more relatable. They’re less ‘threatening,’ making people more likely to tap through them,” Antonino shares.

These little circles feel like a nice dose of semi-realness in a raging sea of overproduced curation. It’s easier to toss a random photo on your story compared to the mechanics and aesthetic considerations of blending it into “the grid.”

Humans love relatability. Picture-perfect poses and photoshopped perfection, however, can make us feel threatened.

So, next time you post your 2 a.m. tipsy Taco Bell feast all over your story, know that someone is likely taking comfort in your less-than-curated contributions.

After I’ve speed-tapped through approximately 86 people’s daily happenings, I often find myself rewatching my own story.

And then I watch who’s watching me. I then have an existential moment wondering what they think, viewing my life online. And TBH, I don’t really know how we got to this point of ridiculousness, but we’re all here. Everyone’s doing it.

Research tells me I’m not alone.

The same survey from Facebook revealed that one of the top reasons people use Instagram’s story feature is to see what others are up to. According to the results, they’re seeking “live and unedited content.”

As a species, we’re inherently curious about our fellow humans and how they view us. Make it a little more “behind the scenes” instead of center stage, and we’re even more interested.

The Looking-Glass Self theory was developed by a sociologist named Charles Cooley way back in 1902, asserting that we develop our concept of self from observing how we’re perceived by others.

Basically, we post highlights of our lives to bolster our self-identity.

“This has the potential to keep us stuck in a vicious cycle where we feel the only way to push our confidence up is to continue posting our ‘perfect’ projection of ourselves,” says Antonino.

When it comes to our mental health, stories on the ‘Gram pack the usual punch, contributing to skyrocketing rates of anxiety and depression.

Ever slapped on a snazzy filter and thought “hot damn, I look good as hell” only to realize it just airbrushed your entire existence?

Yeah. We’ve all been there.

Story filters, specifically, lead us to spend hours comparing what could be with what isn’t when it comes to our appearances. Dr. Leela Magavi has seen the effects of this firsthand as a psychiatrist and regional medical director for Community Psychiatry.

“Children and adults of all ages have confided in me, sharing that they are ashamed of posting photographs of themselves without the utilization of filters,” says Magavi. “I have assessed teenagers, men, and women who have discussed the idea of getting plastic surgery to look more like the filtered version of themselves.”

Digitally-induced body dysmorphia has descended upon society. More times than I care to admit, I’ve flicked through different filters, carefully analyzing which hue suits me the best and recoiling in horror at the ones that give me Bratz doll lips.

Filters or not, we get that oh-so-desirable hit of dopamine when others react positively. The internal monologue whispers “yesss” when someone replies with a heart-eyes emoji. When an ex watches our story, we make all kinds of off-the-wall assumptions.

It feels like connection, but does it really mean much at all?

“Watching individuals’ stories can create false, transient feelings of connectedness, which do not and cannot take the place of speaking with and spending time with loved ones,” Magavi says. “Over time, this can create debilitating feelings of loneliness.”

Social media feels like a bit of an uncontrollable avalanche on humanity. As concerning as the effects have become, it’s not all bad.

I’ve gotten some killer recipes for banana bread, and I get to view the lives of people I love by simply tapping on little circles each day. Happy as that makes me, it’s still been difficult to find a balance and resist the urge to story binge.

Antonino says the key to striking a healthy balance is by becoming aware of the impact social media has on us at the personal level.

He advises us to ask ourselves the following questions:

  • How important has social media become to us compared to cultivating relationships in more traditional ways?
  • How significant, satisfying, and meaningful are the interactions we maintain through social media?
  • What does our time spent on social media hold us back from?

Instagram Stories and their many addictive cousins aren’t going anywhere, so it’s on us to use them to value-add to our lives without going overboard.

Tapping little circles is fun and all, but checking in with your real circles is where it’s really at.


Tadeu Dreyer/Stocksy United

Sarah Lempa is a writer and creative media strategist covering the joys (and challenges) of travel lifestyle, mental health, and solopreneurship. Her work has appeared in Business Insider, VICE, and SUITCASE Magazine, among others. Currently based in Indonesia, she’s called multiple countries home and has ventured across six continents along the way. When she’s not chipping away at a piece, you’ll find her jamming out to groovy beats or riding a motorcycle. Keep up with Sarah on Instagram.