According to a recent study, people with social anxiety spend more time editing their photos, videos, and captions on Instagram compared to those without social anxiety. The findings suggest that this is because their self-worth is more strongly tied to recognition from other users on the platform (e.g., likes, follows, and comments). The study was published in Frontiers in Psychology.
Social anxiety disorder (SAD) involves fear and avoidance of social situations due to worry about being judged by others. Study authors Richard B. Lopez and Isabel Polletta wanted to study whether these fears would lead people with SAD to engage differently with social media. Despite taking place within a virtual environment, social media exposes users to social evaluation and criticism. The researchers proposed that Instagram users with high social anxiety might show unique “control behaviors” on Instagram in order to protect their self-image.
“I have seen image-based social media platforms, particularly Instagram, influence everything from social interactions to expectations to career paths,” explained Polletta, an alumni of the Regulation of Everyday Affect, Craving, and Health (REACH) Lab who is now a social studies teacher at Rhinebeck High School.
“Simultaneously, I noticed a ‘pressure’ connected to the ways in which people regulate their ‘online selves’ on social media. This tension is what motivated me to initially research this topic during my undergraduate time at Bard College before revisiting and refining it into the present study.”
A sample of 247 Instagram users between the ages of 18 and 58 completed a questionnaire that included an assessment of social anxiety. The survey also assessed “Instagram contingent self-worth” — the extent that a person bases their self-worth on their experiences on Instagram. To assess Instagram contingent self-worth, participants responded to items assessing how their self-esteem is affected by likes, follows, comments, and popularity on Instagram.
Participants also answered questions about their use of control behaviors on Instagram — how long they edit their photos and videos, how often they edit their captions after posting, and how often they disable their comments.
The results revealed that participants with higher social anxiety scored higher in Instagram contingent self-worth. In other words, their self-esteem was more reliant on positive recognition (likes, follows, and comments) from other Instagram users compared to participants with lower social anxiety. In turn, this higher Instagram contingent self-worth was tied to more time spent editing photos/videos and a greater likelihood of editing captions after posting. This effect remained even after controlling for age, sex, and daily time spent on Instagram, suggesting that the effect was not driven by socially anxious people spending more time on Instagram.
These findings suggest that people who have a greater fear of social judgment tend to have a sense of self-worth that is connected to their recognition and popularity on Instagram. This then leads them to engage in more behaviors to control their self-image on the platform — such as spending more time editing their content.
“Participants with higher levels of social anxiety tended to engage in more ‘content control behavior,’ that is, participants with higher levels of social anxiety tried to ‘control’ their online persona more than those with lower levels of social anxiety,” Polletta told PsyPost. “This may be related to the amount of self-worth connected to one’s online experience.”
Polletta and Lopez noted several limitations to their findings. As their study was cross-sectional, it was not possible to test whether social anxiety was causally related to Instagram contingent self-worth and Instagram control behaviors. Another interpretation of the findings could be that a person’s behaviors on Instagram are influencing social anxiety levels over time.
“Questions I still aim to address include: How has our understanding of psychological disorders, identifying, etc, shifted as a result of social media becoming such a core part of our daily lives?” Polletta said.
Overall, the study suggests that people with high social anxiety enact with Instagram in particular ways compared to people with lower social anxiety. Polletta and Lopez say that it may be helpful for researchers and mental health professionals to take note of a person’s social anxiety, self-worth contingencies, and platform behaviors when assessing whether or not social media is a detriment to their well-being.
The study, “Regulating Self-Image on Instagram: Links Between Social Anxiety, Instagram Contingent Self-Worth, and Content Control Behaviors”, was authored by Richard B. Lopez and Isabel Polletta.