How is Instagram bringing self-help to teens?


For generations, people have sought to improve themselves by seeking guidance from friends, family, support groups, and books. But in the digital era, many teenagers are turning to Instagram for self-help advice. How are they harnessing this platform to find solutions for everyday problems?

Instagram social media self-help

Self-improvement is no new concept. For centuries, people have turned to home remedies and advice passed down from generation to generation, relying on their peers and community for support. But, in recent years, interest in self-care – which specifically describes the act of treating yourself and developing or maintaining healthy habits – has skyrocketed; as noted in a Slate article, Google searches for the term spiked in the US immediately following the presidential election in November 2016. [1]

For younger Americans, self-care is vital to dealing with mental health issues. “If we can identify the things that are helpful for us, when we do go through tough times, we have those skills,” says Roisin Doolan, a youth participation and community engagement officer at ReachOut Ireland, an online mental health service. [2] Yet while past generations may have relied on guidance from self-help books and videos created by self-professed gurus, teens nowadays are seeking out information using the digital tools they’ve grown up with. After all, 95% of 13- to 17-year-olds in the US have access to a smartphone and 45% are online almost constantly. [3]

Instagram, in particular, has become an invaluable resource for tips on everything from acne to relationships to schoolwork. Accounts sharing advice ‘threads’ – strings of text-filled images in a single post with advice about one topic – have existed for over a year, notes Taylor Lorenz for The Atlantic, and have seen a significant jump in followers over the first half of 2018. [4] But why exactly are teens flocking to this photo-sharing platform for guidance on everyday life?

Created by accounts such as @selfcareplace, @selfcaresis, and @selfcarethreads, many of the self-help threads posted on Instagram provide advice that’s typically just a Google search away. One thread, for example, offers job suggestions for 14- to 17-year-olds, listing the companies that welcome teen workers, while another showcases the varied uses for aloe vera. The reason why teens are turning to this channel rather than searching for tips themselves may simply be a matter of convenience; as Instagram is the second most popular social platform among adolescents in the US, used by 72% of them, there are countless sources of relevant advice at their fingertips. [3]

Considering the sizeable adolescent base that Instagram has, Doolan says it makes sense that the platform is being used as a peer-to-peer support system. “Social media is a space where teens already exist, [where] young people are getting advice from other young people,” she says. “[The advice] is coming from someone like them, from similar experiences, so it’s more trustworthy.” [2]

Lorenz highlights, that teens are looking to Instagram threads for “a daily feed of highly digestible information about how to tackle acne, become more popular at school, deal with fake friends, get a boyfriend, keep your grades up, and more.” A 15-year-old named Grace told Lorenz that such posts “offer reassurance and help because they gather all of the information under one heading.” [4]

Trusted voices
Rather than searching the internet to collect advice from various sources, Instagram threads serve as a reliable one-stop-shop. Kimberly Webb, a 19-year-old thread creator from Texas, says teens are more likely to trust make-up and fitness influencers over what they find through Google, so she watches YouTube videos to understand and condense information on a certain topic into easy-to-understand bullet points that she then posts on Instagram. “When I was young, I Googled my issues instead of DMing someone on Insta about it, but I just think that’s how the younger generation does it,” she says. [4]

Erin Vogel, a postdoctoral fellow in the department of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, also says the platform is conducive for advice and support. “People can comment and it can be more like a discussion,” she explains. “Instagram also offers some privacy features – you can set posts on privacy mode.” [5] This aspect of privacy is important to teens who often use secured ‘Finsta’ accounts to share their unguarded, unpolished selves without fear.

Solution or part of the problem?
Teens’ use of social media for self-care seems counter-intuitive, with past research having linked frequent or intense use of such platforms to lower self-esteem and depressive symptoms. [6][7][8] Some evidence suggests that this is even truer for people who already deal with depression or anxiety. [9] Yet according to a Pew study, 45% of teens believe that social media sites have had neither a positive nor negative effect on their lives. [3]

Self-help threads are helping to flip the narrative that all social media use is negative. They’re proving that Instagram – which in a 2017 survey of teens and adults was ranked to be the worst social media platform when it comes to our wellbeing – can be a way for teens to help their peers and create positive change. [10]

“That is a great example of one way that social media can have a good effect,” says Vogel. “When teens use social media for self-care, they’re connecting with other people.” While social media sites are typically thought of as distorting people’s perception of reality, Instagram threads have opened a window into users’ true experiences, letting teens see that others are going through similar issues. “Most of the time when people use social media, they’re select in how they present themselves,” Vogel adds. “But [in] being able to disclose certain issues, it helps the people who post these things and also those who are seeking out help.” [5]

Group support
However harmful social media may seem for mental health, it’s still extremely common for teens to seek support in those spaces. Nearly seven in ten teens have reported receiving support on social platforms during tough times, according to the Royal Society for Public Health. [10] Doolan says this is no surprise as the web is the first place that teens look for help on issues related to mental health and wellbeing, rather than traditional outlets like parents, charities or hotlines. “It can help them feel less alone when they know their peers are going through the same things,” she says. “Adults can say that, too, but it’s so much more powerful when it’s coming from another young person.” [2]

Of course, there are other ways of gaining self-care guidance on social media than Instagram threads. Facebook groups have remained strong for years, letting members aid one another on any number of issues, while mental health organizations are able to spread information through these channels as a way to reach people. What’s more, the platforms themselves are beginning to make efforts to address mental health. Facebook has a mechanism in place to allow users to flag posts relating to self-harm, and it’s also using artificial intelligence to detect these posts automatically, connecting the posters with first responders. [11] With 71% of young people supporting the idea of pop-up messages on social media to warn users about excessive usage, and 68% wanting manipulated photos to be highlighted, it seems that teens would like the platforms themselves to take more responsibility for users’ wellbeing. [10]

Insights and opportunities
Doolan says that Instagram threads and similar posts on other channels can be good for teens: “It makes sense to put the help where the young people already are.” [2] It’s a sentiment shared by Vogel, who suggests that by seeking out information, support and advice on the network, teens are learning the value of self-care and self-help – concepts that will help them cope in the future. “The earlier teenagers can learn to do that, the better they’ll be,” she says. “A lot of emphasis in our society is placed on doing things on your own, but the earlier people reach out for support, that’s a great thing.” [5]

Based on this understanding, brands have the opportunity to reach teens on a personal level by offering support, advice and a sense of understanding, rather than just ad copy. Instagram, where teens are seeking help, can also serve as a community-building platform. One such example is Teen Vogue, which has 2.3 million Instagram followers. In addition to posts relating to its website content, the brand has struck a chord with teens by talking about subjects such as period essentials. Using an illustration, it outlines some key ways to make a period easier to manage, showing how brands, in addition to being relatable, can give teens real-life guidance for getting through difficult situations.

Vogel does caution that there’s one significant pitfall to only seeking support through Instagram threads. “One potential problem with using social media for support is that [teens] might be getting information that isn’t always accurate,” she says, stating that while it’s beneficial for teens to use social platforms to explore advice and support, they need to verify the information with other sources. “It’s also important to reach out to adults or organizations who can provide verified, accurate information.” [5] Brands and charities can help in this regard by providing easily digestible and well-informed Insta guides on everything from skincare to coping with anxiety. While their content may not have the same resonance as peer-produced posts, actively engaging teens on the social channels where they reside can go a long way to earning their attention – and trust.

1. 'A history of self-care', Slate (April 2017)
2. Interview with Roisin Doolan conducted by author
3. 'Teens, social media & technology 2018', Pew Research Center (May 2018)
4. 'How Instagram threads became the WikiHow for Gen Z', The Atlantic (June 2018)
5. Interview with Erin Vogel conducted by author
6. 'Social comparison, social media, and self-esteem', Psychology of Popular Media Culture (October 2014)
7. 'Seeing everyone else's highlight reels: how Facebook usage is linked to depressive symptoms', Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology (October 2014)
8. 'A psychology researcher explains how social media is changing us', Salon (January 2018)
9. 'Social networking sites, depression, and anxiety: a systematic review', JMIR Mental Health (2016)
10. '#StatusOfMind: Social media and young people's mental health and wellbeing', Royal Society for Public Health (May 2017)
11. 'Social media support: Facebook’s effort for suicide prevention for teens', Viewpoint Center (December 2017)

This article was first published by our research partner, Canvas8

Instagram social media self-help
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