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Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024
The Observer

Why does Instagram make us all feel terrible?

As part of my internship-less and vaccinated summer, in August I visited Glacier National Park with my boyfriend. We braved 1000 miles of Interstate 90 to have a chance to visit one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, and I loved every minute of it (well, not every minute).

On our second day there, we hiked uphill for three miles to see a glacial lake nestled in the mountains. After realizing just how badly I needed to hit the Duncan gym as soon as I got back to South Bend, I was not disappointed — the lake was awe-inspiring, and we stopped to take some pictures.

The lake was crowded, and I soon realized we weren’t the only ones trying to snap an Instagram shot. In fact, a family that arrived just a few minutes after us started taking pictures, and from my vantage point (leaning up against a fallen tree, giving my out-of-shape legs a rest) I noticed a father trying very hard to get an approved picture of his daughter, who was maybe 11 or 12. It’s not a surprising scene to see at such a picturesque location, but it struck me as profoundly sad. Maybe it’s because I spent part of the summer working with 10 to 13-year-old girls and saw how preoccupied they were with how people perceived them, or maybe it’s because I saw myself, in my most self-conscious moments, in her struggle to get a picture that made her look like she felt she should.

I vividly remember downloading Instagram. I was 13 in my childhood bedroom with my middle school best friend. I was wearing a “Les Miserables”-themed graphic tee, a black skater skirt, and a green infinity scarf with green rubber bands on my braces. I chose to add a 13 to my handle not because @elliekonfrst was already taken (Konfrst isn’t particularly common), but because it was Taylor Swift’s favorite number. My friend and I took a selfie and I posted it without much thought.

As I grew up, however, posting on Instagram became a much more intense endeavor. In the past 10 years, posting on Instagram became a profession for some, but even those who weren’t getting paid took it seriously. You wanted to filter your photos so you looked good, but not so it looked overdone; you wanted the caption to be clever or profound but didn’t want it to look like you tried too hard. My friends and I would spend hours after parties or vacations poring over the pictures we took and workshopping captions that made us seem cool or funny or smart. I’ve done some professional social media work in college, and looking back it’s easy to see what we’ve been doing all along: building our brand.

I’m 21 now, and I must be honest: I’m exhausted by Instagram. It’s not my most toxic social media platform (that title is reserved for, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t had a negative impact on me. I find myself preoccupied with how I look and what my eventual caption will be even when I’m standing in front of a breathtaking valley, or savoring one of my last Friday nights with my college friends. It’s not just me, either — I took a few other trips with friends last summer, and each one was filled with at least one night of picture-taking, picture-analyzing and frustration when the pictures didn’t turn out quite right.

Now, I know what you might be thinking at this point — this is a me problem, or perhaps a me-and-my-friends problem. Tons of people can handle Instagram, posting pictures of their dogs or their breakfasts or a pretty sky. I would counter with this — at this point, Instagram (and many other social media platforms) exist so companies can build their brands. Anyone notice when Instagram’s notifications tab was replaced with a shopping page? No matter how much you may believe it is made simply for sharing pictures with your friends, it is built for you to curate your personal brand, and that business model is woven into every profile and subconsciously pushed onto every user.

So I return to the girl by the lake. She looked exhausted, too. Maybe it was the uphill hike. Or maybe it was the weight of deciding how you will present your identity to the world and working hard to do so before you finish eighth grade. I, along with many of my friends, can attest to the damage it does when you feel like you have to put on a performance for your peers at such a young age. My self-esteem and sense of identity have been seriously affected by Instagram, and I didn’t feel that pressure to really brand myself until I was in high school, at least. This girl has likely felt that pressure since the first time she laid eyes on an iPhone. Instagram (and most other social media platforms) have a minimum age of 13, but studies show that by the age of 12, over half of children have some kind of social media.

Bo Burnham has a lot of great observations about social media and performance and how it affects the psyche, many of which he shared in his TikTok-famous “Inside” this past year. It’s an earlier quote from Burnham’s 2016 special “Make Happy,” however, that has always struck me: “If you can live your life without an audience, you should do it.”

Everyone who has grown up on social media is still young. To a large extent, we’re still trying to figure out how it affects children’s development and mental health. Yet many of us know, anecdotally, that it can’t be good. It’s draining. It’s terrible for our self-esteem. But it’s designed so we’re unable to stop scrolling.

I haven’t figured out how to live my life without an audience yet. I hope, for the sake of the young girl at the lake, she’s better at putting her phone down than I am.

Ellie Konfrst is a senior studying political science with a minor in the Hesburgh Program for Public Service. Originally from Des Moines, Iowa, she’s excited people will once again be forced to listen to her extremely good takes. You can find her off campus trying to decide whether or not she’ll go to law school or bragging that Taylor Swift follows her on Tumblr. She can be reached at or @elliekonfrst13 on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.