A new study suggests that going to great lengths to gain likes on Instagram can decrease one’s feelings of belonging among real-life peers. The findings were published in Computers in Human Behavior.
While positive attention received on social media has been linked to favorable outcomes such as increased self-esteem, study authors Tara M. Dumas and team point out that users of these platforms often go to extreme lengths to garner such attention. Online communities like Instagram are rampant with what researchers call “deceptive like-seeking behaviors.” These behaviors are specifically aimed at garnering likes and include actions like purchasing followers or digitally altering one’s photos.
Dumas and colleagues designed a longitudinal study to explore the interplay between youth’s deceptive behaviors on Instagram, their self-esteem, and their sense of peer belonging.
A group of 307 North American young adults with an average age of 21 took part in two online surveys concerning their Instagram use. The first survey asked subjects to indicate which of five deceptive actions they have taken to gain likes on Instagram (e.g., “used software to modify your physical appearance” and “taken down a picture and then put it back at a later point.”). They also completed self-report measures of self-esteem and peer belonging.
Three months later, the researchers had subjects complete a second survey to explore whether subjects’ Instagram behavior and well-being had changed.
The results showed that over 60% of the young respondents had engaged in at least one deceptive behavior while attempting to gain likes on Instagram. Receiving likes appeared to be beneficial to a certain extent — youth with higher ratios of likes on their photos reported higher feelings of peer belonging three months later. However, the results suggested that the means of getting these likes can thwart the positive effects — the extent that subjects engaged in deceptive like-seeking behaviors was linked to lower feelings of peer belonging three months later.
Dumas and colleagues explain how attempts to gain virtual popularity through dishonest behaviors might damage young people’s real-life friendships. “When focused on gaining likes, one’s online community may become most important and weaken existing friendship ties. Furthermore, young adults may doubt their authentic selves and connection to others when consumed with lying to promote a better version of themselves,” the authors say.
Youth with low self-esteem appeared to be at increased risk for these maladaptive behaviors. Subjects who indicated that deceptive like-seeking behaviors were accepted among their peers were more likely to engage in these behaviors three months later — but this was only true for those with low self-esteem.
“The tragedy for low self-esteem youth then, as demonstrated by our findings, is that while they may engage in deceptive social networking site behavior to gain social inclusion, these very behaviors, in turn, reduce peer belonging,” the researchers say.
Contrary to the researchers’ expectations, deceptive like-seeking behavior was not linked to participants’ self-esteem. The authors point out that their study relied on data collected at only two time points. Including additional time points, they say, might reveal a relationship between like-seeking behaviors and self-esteem. In particular, future studies should measure participants’ self-esteem directly after engaging in dishonest like-seeking behavior.
The study, “Gaining Likes, but at What Cost? Longitudinal Relations between Young Adults’ Deceptive Like-Seeking on Instagram, Peer Belonging and Self-Esteem”, was authored by Tara M. Dumas, Matthew A. Maxwell-Smith, Paul F. Tremblay, Dana M. Litt, and Wendy Ellis.