Many mental health professionals have discussed Instagram’s negative impact on mental health. It’s especially obvious in teenagers, and even the company itself seems to be aware of it. However, adults aren’t spared of Instagram’s toxic influence, especially women. I bring you a quick little experiment that shows just why Instagram is such a huge mental health issue.
Weight loss ads are everywhere!
I have complained before that Instagram is oversaturated with ads. They’re everywhere: in your Feed, Explore page, Reels, Stories… You name it. There are so many of them that I’ve learned to just scroll past them without paying too much attention. But one type of ad has appeared so many times that I finally caught my eye. It’s weight-loss ads. They appear so often that I started noticing them and I marked quite a few of them as “irrelevant.” Still, they keep popping up.
They advertise all sorts of diets, exercises for weight loss, fasting, Keto diet (gosh, when will Keto stop being a thing?). Most of these ads promise “flat tummy in 8 minutes” and other fairytales like that. Many of them promote “intermittent fasting” which became a fad a few years ago. Back in my day, we called it “starving yourself” and it was a big no-no, by the way.
So, while I was waiting for my coffee water to boil yesterday morning, I scrolled Instagram a bit and decided to take screenshots of the ads I see. It takes a few minutes for the water to boil in an electric kettle, so I didn’t spend too much time in the app: 3-4 minutes tops. And paying attention to the ad content and frequency was actually pretty shocking.
First of all, on average, every fourth post was an ad. In other words, around 25% of the content you’ll see on Instagram is an ad – and this is in the Feed only. No wonder Instagram makes dozens of billions of ad revenue. During the 4th October outage, it was estimated that the company lost $66 billion of ad revenue in only six hours. But I digress.
What about the ad types? Well, most of the ads I saw were related to weight loss. I saw two ads for mental health resources, two or three for creative courses (one of which I already attend), and a few ads for really stupid mobile games. But yeah, a vast majority of them were just telling me that I’m not worthy or good enough unless I lose weight. How sad is that?
Stuff I follow on Instagram
I think it’s important to note what kind of stuff I follow on Instagram. After all, this is how the algorithm decides what to offer you in the Explore feed. I know that it’s the businesses that target their ads, not Instagram. They sometimes only target people of particular gender and age, but if you want to be more specific, you’ll also target their interests, location, etc.
As far as interests go, I follow quite a lot of creative people and artists of all sorts. I also follow lots of accounts dedicated to mental and physical health, feminism, a few cooking accounts, and so on. When it comes to weight loss and dieting, I follow zero accounts about it. I also follow only one account of a girl who demonstrates physical exercises. In other words, one wouldn’t say I’m particularly interested in losing weight. And yet, most ads I see are only about that.
Instagram lets you chose ad topics… But does it really?
“We want the ads you see while on Instagram to be personalized and relevant for you,” the company writes on the Help page. But alas, you can’t choose to be bombed with weight-loss ads. You can only choose to see fewer ads about alcohol, parenting, pets, and elections and politics. Can you give me more “pets” and “alcohol” and less “intermittent fasting” and “flat tummy in 8 minutes” please, Instagram?
Of course, you can always report an ad as being irrelevant or repetitive. And I’ve actually done this quite a few times when the pandemic began because those “exercise at home” ads were all over the place. However, it didn’t really work out. I still see the same kind of ads, only from different businesses.
So, what’s the problem?
I’ve talked about it before: we need to tailor our own Feed so that we only follow useful content that we are genuinely interested in. Posts we see and accounts we follow shouldn’t make us feel bad about ourselves. And this is exactly how my Feed looks like if you don’t count the ads in.
But the ads are so frequent, that you just have to count them in. Even if you’ve learned to ignore them as you scroll, you subconsciously get the message they send: you’re not worthy, you’re not good enough, you’re not beautiful. You can’t be accepted in this society unless you change.
How we can solve it
We can’t change Instagram and make these ads disappear. After all, those businesses pay for ads fair and square, Instagram makes tons of money from them, so we can’t really influence that.
But what we can change is ourselves and our habits. No, we don’t need to be thinner, do handstands, run for 4 hours every day, and eat nothing but kale. We need to change our perception of ourselves – through reading, therapy, talking to our loved ones, and talking to our inner selves. We need to learn to accept ourselves and know that we’re worthy no matter how we look. It’s not easy, it’s a never-ending process, but it’s doable. And not to mention that it’s good for our well-being.
An occasional social media detox is a great idea, too. Moreover, it’s necessary! Deactivating Instagram and Facebook accounts from time to time is useful if you can’t prevent yourself from scrolling through them.
How Instagram can solve it
For starters, Instagram could actually give us a choice of topics we want to hear less about. Similarly, maybe we could also choose those we want to hear about. Giving us four topics to choose from and calling it “personalized and relevant” is just ridiculous.
Next, the app could actually account for all those ads we reported as repetitive and irrelevant. Right now, it feels like a Sisyphean task as they keep reappearing in my feed no matter how often I report them.
And finally, Instagram could actually start caring about the mental health of its users, instead of just saying that it does. But something tells me that mental health and ad revenue don’t go hand in hand.