Is Following Aspirational Instagram Accounts Bad For Your Mental Health?

By now, we as a society are starting to see evidence that social media can be a double-edged sword, including platforms like Instagram. Yes, it helps keep us stay connected with friends and family, and yes, it can be a great tool for sharing information or life updates. However, research suggests that social media use can also have an impact on your mental health — for example, endlessly doomscrolling through posts about war, politics, and environmental disasters (via Cleveland Clinic).

But what if you're mindful about your social media usage? You've already purged your following list, and now, your Insta feed is dominated by close friends, cute animals, and uplifting content with the ever-popular hashtag #lifegoals. By blocking out the negative noise, you should be good to go, right? Unfortunately, it's not that cut and dry, as public sentiment has shown. After years of intense social media saturation from picture-perfect influencers, their unattainable standards are being usurped by more relatable content from more down-to-earth personalities (via The Guardian). But why are aspirational accounts losing their luster, and what is the real connection between this type of content and your emotional well-being?

The dark side of aspirational Instagram accounts

As humans, it's our natural tendency to compare ourselves to those around us, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. A 2021 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests there is a sweet spot for social comparison, and the right amount can actually inspire us to work harder. The bigger issue comes up with what is called a comparison discrepancy — essentially when we're comparing ourselves to someone who seems far above or below our status quo.

Because of this effect, following accounts that are pure sunshine and light can actually cast a dark shadow on your perception of your own lifestyle. If you're only consuming idealized content, then, by comparison, it can seem like everyone online is happier, wealthier, and more attractive than you, instilling a sense of dissatisfaction. In fact, a 2016 study published in the Journal of Adolescence found that teens who were "more emotionally invested in social media experienced poorer sleep quality, lower self-esteem and higher levels of anxiety and depression."

Regarding fitness or nutrition influencers, there's also a risk that their well-meaning advice could inspire poor body image and disordered eating. "Studies have found a link between greater social media use and negative body issues, particularly among young people," Dr. Mai-Ly Nguyen Steers, assistant professor at Duquesne University, tells Forbes. "These individuals may be comparing their bodies to those they see on social media and feeling like they don't live up to that image."

Signs it's time to stop scrolling

If you've pared down your social feeds to good news content but are still feeling more anxious than inspired, then viewing all those happy posts may be backfiring.

If you're looking at a carefully curated selection of someone's best moments and trying to use them as a standard, it can feel almost impossible to measure up. But these aren't reasonable comparisons. "Just because someone posts a cute picture of their kid dressed neatly with a clean house in the background doesn't mean that five minutes later that same house isn't a mess, or the parents aren't frustrated or exhausted," digital health coach Tamika Simpson tells Byrdie. "Social media is a snapshot in time. It is not an example of the whole picture."

Similarly, if your favorite accounts are giving you a compulsion to keep up with the Joneses or if you're turning to social media out of habit even though it's bringing you no joy, it may be time to step away. "If you find you are regularly comparing yourself and it's causing you any anxiety or depression, then it's OK to unfollow someone. It's OK to stop looking," Simpson says. "We can walk away for a while and come back when we feel up to it."