In his famous and often quoted graduation speech, "This is Water," given at Kenyon College in 2005, David Foster Wallace remarked:

"There are two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?"

The ubiquitous "water" in which so many of us find ourselves swimming in 2022 is our virtual environment, where countless interactions with other human beings play out on social media platforms.

This raises numerous questions: how does this increasingly rich and dynamic social context affect our cognition and behavior? Since so much of the content we're exposed to on social media is determined by computer algorithms that quietly chug away behind the scenes, how much autonomy do we really have, as hapless users, to shape our online contexts? And which psychological factors affect the content people share?

These questions motivated my colleague and me to conduct a study on people's Instagram use. Instagram is one of the world's most popular social media apps, with a user base of well over 1 billion. The app has come under intense scrutiny lately because of the harms it can pose to young people and their mental health, so it is both timely and critical to ask exactly how, when, and why social media can pose threats to a person's health and well-being.

We studied the links between people's levels of social anxiety, how their self-esteem was tied to and affected by their Instagram use, and ways in which they controlled and curated the content they shared on their accounts (for example, by disabling comments on posts).

To do this, we asked 250 people of all ages from around the world to describe when and how they feel social anxiety. For example, a person might say they experience greater unease and stress when "Attending a social event where I only know one person," and "Being asked out by a person I am attracted to." We also asked about how their Instagram use affects their self-worth, which was indicated by greater agreement with statements like "When I get a lot of likes and new followers on my Instagram, my self-esteem increases," and "I feel worthwhile when others like or comment on my Instagram posts." Finally, we looked at how much the people disabled comments for individual posts, spent time editing and annotating photos and videos, and spent time editing captions after a post has already been shared.

More Social Anxiety is Linked to One's Instagram-related Self-Worth 

We found that more socially anxious people were more likely to have their self-worth tied to their experiences on Instagram. Those with greater social anxiety—arising in part from the stress of being negatively evaluated by other Instagram users—were more likely to have "higher highs" and "lower lows," with respect to their self-esteem, as they interacted on the platform.

Furthermore, those who experienced this specific, Instagram-related self-worth were especially likely to carefully curate whatever content they decided to share on their accounts. This means that social anxiety can have a real effect on people's sense of self-worth in virtual contexts, and this in turn can impact how a person uses social media.

This paves the way for a lot of interesting future research. For example, researchers can examine whether spending a lot of time on the content of one's Instagram account is adaptive and helps protect against threats to self-esteem and mental health, or contributes to a cyclical, maladaptive pattern that backfires and maintains—or increases—one's level of social anxiety and Instagram-related self-worth. Of course, we collected data at only one point in time, so we cannot say what is causing what. It could be that more socially anxious people approach and use social media differently than their less socially anxious counterparts to begin with, or it could be that content control behaviors can impact a person's social anxiety and self-worth. Both could be true.

This study only scratches the surface on questions that could be very important for a great many people. Just knowing that a person's feelings of self-worth can be tied to Instagram should be a wake-up call, if nothing else. 

For Further Reading

Crocker, J., Brook, A. T., Niiya, Y., & Villacorta, M. (2006). The pursuit of self-esteem: Contingencies of self-worth and self-regulation. Journal of Personality, 74(6), 1749-1772.

Lopez, R. B., & Polletta, I. (2021). Regulating self-image on Instagram: Links between social anxiety, Instagram contingent self-worth, and content control behaviors. Frontiers in Psychology, 3700.

Orlowski, J. (Director). (2020). The Social Dilemma [Film]. Exposure Labs.

Richard Lopez is an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where he directs the Social Neuroscience of Affective Processes Lab. He and his research team examine psychological processes that underlie self-regulation and goal pursuit across domains, with the goal of developing personalized interventions to improve health and wellbeing.