The image-based social media app Instagram has come under repeated and ongoing attacks due to the negative mental health effects it has on its users, in particular women and girls, in recent years. The extent of Instagram’s potential harm is still being widely debated, but a Concordia researcher argues in a new paper that regular use of the app isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And, in some cases, it can be beneficial for women with mental health issues, including eating disorders and anxiety.
In an article published in the journal Feminist Media Studies, Concordia PhD Candidate and 2021 Public Fellow Fanny Gravel-Patry conducts an in-depth study of women’s use of Instagram in their daily lives. The study tracks the social media habits of three Quebec women with mental illness who have incorporated Instagram use into their daily habits and found it to have positive effects on their mental health. She notes that they use the app in a variety of ways depending on their personalities, whether it’s creating and finding mental health resources, sharing their healing journeys, or capturing screenshots of inspirational posts. Gravel-Patry says Instagram has a calming effect on these women, helping them deal with limited access to mental health resources.
“I was interested in why they’re turning to the platform, what kind of content they consume and create, and what they find there they can’t find elsewhere,” notes Gravel-Patry.
curing digital habits
She says there are good reasons to focus on women’s digital habits. First, adopting regular habits is often the first step people living with mental illness can take to improve their mental health, whether it’s exercising, going to therapy, doing crafts, writing in a journal, or spending constructive time online. Second, she was interested to see how the women she interviewed were able to break out of the pattern of repetitive images portraying women as hysterical or prone to insanity to create new and more positive discourses. And third, she wanted to see whether social media habits can produce long-term healing transformation.
“I tried to put it all together to see how social media fits here as something that helps with recovery and not something that gets in the way,” she says. “I also wanted to consider it not as the best tool necessarily, but because it’s a tool that’s available to them.”
All three of the women Gravel-Patry focuses on in her study are graduate students in Quebec. One suffers from an eating disorder, another deals with generalized anxiety and an eating disorder, and the third lives with anxiety, body image issues and trauma related to childhood experiences of racism.
They all use Instagram regularly as a way to deal with their mental illness, but in different ways. One decided to share her recovery process through her account, while the other two preferred a more anonymous approach, such as taking screenshots of positive memes or following accounts with content that calms feelings of anxiety.
Mental health meets platform capitalism
She notes that Instagram is not inherently beneficial. As a company that operates in the paradigm of platform capitalism, it has its share of responsibility in contributing to an economic system that profits from women and girls who may be negatively impacted by it. This takes on additional relevance at a time when mental health care funding is being directed towards self-care initiatives such as the development of digital mental health tools.
“As resources are limited, people have no choice but to take care of their own mental health and use apps like Instagram,” she says. “But these are apps that ultimately encourage the structure of individualized commodification.”
Read the cited article:A series of little high fives”: mental health and digital habituation in female practices on Instagram.”
Feminist Media Studies
“A series of little high fives”: mental health and digital habituation in female practices on Instagram
Article Publication Date
November 24, 2022
No potential conflicts of interest were reported by the author(s).