Social media is an integral part of many people’s lives and, despite its potential benefits, using social media can lead to a more negative body image—especially when it involves appearance-related content. In this context, Instagram is a particularly important platform, because it is extremely popular (with ~1 billion active users) and it is image-based. Indeed, Instagram use is correlated with negative body image, and exposure to idealised models on Instagram directly contributes to negative body image as well.
In 2019, Instagram experimented with removing users’ ability to view the number of “Likes” under other people’s posts. Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri stated that their aim was to “shift the focus from how many Likes a post gets to the content shared,” and Director of Public Policy, Mia Garlick, stated that they wanted to “ease the pressure on users to get a lot of Likes.”
In this regard, research has shown that most young people engage in like-seeking behaviour, and adolescent girls have described using number of Likes as a measure of popularity and comparing themselves to peers with a higher number of Likes. With respect to appearance-related content specifically, Likes may signal what other people think is “beautiful,” and underscore the importance of beauty, thereby reinforcing societal beauty standards and appearance pressures.
Inspired by these potential changes to Instagram, researchers at Flinders University in Australia, led by Dr. Ivanka Prichard, investigated women’s attitudes toward the removal of Likes.
Focusing on Content Rather Than Likes
The researchers surveyed 291 women in Australia, between 18 and 55 years old. The women completed questionnaires about their Instagram use, body image, and opinions related to the removal of Likes.
The majority of women were in favour of the removal of Likes on Instagram (~67 percent). The remaining women were either unsure (~23 percent) or against the removal of Likes (10 percent).
When asked to describe the potential benefits of the removal of Likes, ~56 percent of women thought that it would lead to a reduced self-focus and negative self-views. For example, one woman described, “People will stop comparing their lives based on virtual meaningless numbers.”
Relatedly, ~37 percent of women thought that the removal of Likes would have health benefits, for example by helping people to feel more positively about their body, boosting self-confidence, and reducing anxiety. The women also described improvements in content, due to users focusing more on content rather than Likes (~17 percent), and changing people’s incentives to post, for content rather than for popularity (~16 percent).
When asked to describe the potential negative consequences of the removal of Likes, 32 percent of women simply stated that there would be no negative consequences. However, around 20 percent of women described consequences for users or businesses who may be dependent on Instagram for income. For example, it may be difficult for influencers to concretely demonstrate their reach and attract sponsors. Last, around 10 percent of women thought that it could become difficult to identify trends and popularity of content, or could simply not have the intended positive benefits.
The Take-Home Message: It’s Difficult to Challenge Societal Beauty Standards
This study showed that most women were in favour of the removal of Likes from Instagram, and thought that it could have important benefits to well-being and to the quality of content shared on Instagram—exactly the intended benefits that Instagram’s CEO and Director of Public Policy hoped for.
From a research perspective, we know that internalisation of beauty ideals, and comparing oneself to others based on physical appearance, are two important factors that contribute to negative body image. Negative body image, in turn, contributes to many health risks (e.g., disordered eating, low self-esteem). Removing Likes from Instagram—the metric that many people use to evaluate what other people find beautiful and meaningful—may very well reduce these factors and improve body image.
However, it is important to underscore that many women were unsure or against the removal of Likes from Instagram, and questioned whether the removal of Likes would actually have the intended benefits. As one participant put it, “Teaching people that Likes matter and that’s why they were removed, instead of improving self-esteem and education so that Likes do not affect people negatively the way they do.”
I was struck by this woman’s comment, and I think she hit the nail on the head: We can remove Likes from Instagram and this may seem like an easy fix. Yet, it is much more difficult to challenge societal beauty standards and the importance that society places on physical appearance. Will these change with the removal of Likes? I expect that users would find another metric for assessing what is considered beautiful and popular, such as the number or types of comments under a post, or the number of followers a user has. In other words, we would be shifting the problem.
Nevertheless, future research into the impact of the removal of Likes will be valuable. For example, future research could involve experiments testing how images with or without Likes impact people’s body image. Future research should also certainly involve people from different geographic regions and demographic characteristics (e.g., different genders, cultural backgrounds, etc.).
Instagram shelved the removal of Likes due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but recently announced they would begin experimenting with it once again. This time, they will be giving users in some countries the option to remove the visibility of others’ Likes, and to remove the visibility of their own Likes to others. Time will tell whether Instagram permanently implements this change, and what its impact will be.
By: Jessica M Alleva Ph.D.