Once upon a time, if you fought through a sea of Hinge profiles and Solo cup-wielding single people and found someone cute who also thought you were cute, you'd make the relationship official. You'd DTR, pose for a pic together, and post it on Instagram, where your friends would shower you with heart emojis and comments like, "You two are sooooooo cute together." And you, your new boo, and your followers would all live happily ever after. But, uh, if that seems a little outdated, and you don't want to be Instagram official, you're not alone. Nearly two-thirds of college students today aren't interested in shining a social media spotlight on their new relationships, because becoming Instagram official has turned out to be no fairy tale.
In a survey of 139 Bustle Digital Group readers ages 18-22 currently enrolled in college, conducted between July 9 and July 29, just 36% said becoming Instagram official was important to them. A full 50% said they didn't care about the milestone, 8% said it was too cheesy, 6% reported they'd rather mark their relationship status in another way, and 1% worried it was too formal. (Elite Daily reached out to Instagram for comment on these stats, but did not hear back in time for publication.)
Many people report feeling cautious about showing off their relationship on social media when they're uncertain about how long they'll be with their significant other. "I don't like including my partner on social media because I am unsure of our future," Tish S. tells Elite Daily. "Some days, I am super happy with them, and others, I am asking myself, 'Why the f*ck am I here?'" If the future looks fuzzy, keeping the relationship on the DL suddenly makes perfect sense. (Of course, if one person wants to go public, and the other doesn't, that can lead to conflict, as many students report.)
When you are dating someone and they post a picture of or with you, it's like the absolute seal of approval; you've made it.
Kathryn A. adds she'll only post pictures of someone if they've been dating for at least six months and she believes the relationship will last. "It's so awkward and uncomfortable to take [photos] off my feed, and then all of my followers will know we've broken up," she says. To her, playing it safe on social media helps ensure she can avoid nosy questions or pitying glances in the future. This approach is a common one — the less committed the relationship is, the less likely people are to display it on Instagram. While 50% of survey respondents have posted photos of a significant other on their grid, only 10% have done so with a person they're casually dating, and just 4% have ever posted a photo with a hookup.
Because debuting a photo with a new partner is so rare, it takes on extra importance — which means it can be extra painful if that relationship doesn't work out. "When you are dating someone and they post a picture of or with you, it's like the absolute seal of approval; you've made it," says Ella V.* "It's a risky game, though, because if anything happens, those photos inevitably have to come down. When my boyfriend and I broke up, I remember one of the most tragic memories was realizing he deleted all the photos... I cried. It really meant that it was over."
All too often, dating in college means wading through a confusing mess of ambiguity. Maybe you've been hooking up with someone all semester, but they don't want to use labels. Or maybe you've been talking to someone you like, and you aren't sure if they're dating anyone else right now. But on Instagram, dating is refreshingly clear: You're official or you're not. You have digital proof your relationship exists... until you don't. If that evidence disappears before your feelings for your ex do, that stings — and it might make you even more wary of becoming Instagram official with the next person you date.
"Historically, declaring your relationship publicly to all your friends and family and community was not something you did until much later, when you were engaged to be married," explains sociologist Arielle Kuperberg, who studies how college students date and hook up. "Social media has changed that timeline. However, people are still reluctant to declare their relationship publicly too early in a relationship, because [that] adds a new barrier to breaking up [if] your relationship does not succeed." This pattern holds especially true for adolescents and young adults, who tend to have several short- and long-term relationships before settling down. And as millennials delay marriage longer than any previous generation did (with Gen Z likely following in their footsteps), it makes sense not to put every relationship up on social media.
41% of college students say they're annoyed or bored by people who post tons of pictures with their partner.
Another reason to keep personal photos off Instagram? Privacy. Not everyone wants their friends, followers, or that random girl they met in line for the Porta-Potty at that music festival last summer to have full insight into their relationship status. "I have accidentally shown an SO's face on an Instagram Story and immediately gotten a bunch of questions about my love life — details I do not like to share publicly," says Daneysi T. "So, yeah, it gives me anxiety." Gen Z tends to value privacy online more than millennials do, so even if your over-sharer older sister sees no problem documenting date night with eight pics and a whole video on her Instagram Story, you might prefer a more locked-down approach.
According to some people, keeping a relationship private can even allow it to blossom. Kelsey A.* tells Elite Daily about her ex, whom she met on Bumble and quickly fell in love with. "Although we went on vacation together, I still never once posted a photo with him, and I don't regret it," she explains. "Relationships are so personal, and posting it on social media feels like a promise that I'll be with them for a long time after. Not posting it on social made both of us feel like our relationship was just ours and nobody else's to judge. We could make our own rules."
For the record, let's be clear: Posting smiling photos of your significant other with lovey-dovey captions does not actually mean that you two are happy together, or destined to last. "A picture of your relationship and the actual experience of your relationship are two different things," Kuperberg reminds Elite Daily. "And if people break up after posting a picture, that doesn't mean that they weren't happy when they posted it originally."
Some students say they choose not to be Instagram official for exactly that reason — they're aware that looking in love on social media has no actual bearing on how well the relationship is going. "With my ex, I thought posting pictures on Instagram together was important," says Lauren M. "I would make sure to post frequently and get frustrated when he didn't as much. However, when we broke up, I realized that posting more pictures on Instagram doesn't mean you are happier as a couple. In my next relationship, I want to stay away from posting on social media with my partner and focus more on being happy in our relationship."
In other words, it looks like those #relationshipgoals photos have lost their luster. Forty-one percent of survey respondents say they're annoyed or bored by people who post tons of pictures with their partner, while another 16% are skeptical that those relationships are really as solid as they look. A 2014 study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that people who felt more insecure about their partner's feelings for them tended to post about their relationship more often online. Even if you aren't a psych major, you've probably figured that out on your own. As Rachel R. puts it, "The relationships that seem to post frequently and go on and on about 'always and forever' seem to last the shortest time."
It's no surprise that people are aware that what they see on Instagram doesn't necessarily have any basis in reality. On a platform filled with bots, photos FaceTuned to oblivion, and CGI influencers like @lilmiquela who have 1.6 million followers, it's not a stretch to understand that being Instagram official doesn't mean your relationship is officially solid.
Even if you choose not to go Instagram official, Kuperberg bets that when you're in a relationship, you'll do something to subtly show off the way your heart feels like a whirlwind of butterflies, rainbows, and sunshine. "In general, humans always do the same thing, even when we get new technology, and that includes symbolically marking the relationship," she says. "You know how in the 1950s, people would wear each other's class rings and varsity jackets?" Going Instagram official is the same thing. Or maybe, if posting #MCMs isn't your style, you'll find another way, like publicly carrying a bouquet of roses across the quad on Valentine's Day, or inviting your new person to your sorority's next date party. Because that's just what people do when they're in love — no filter necessary.
*Name has been changed.