As I was aimlessly scrolling through Instagram one day, I realized I wasn't looking at anything new. I wasn't double-tapping posts from any of the 996 accounts I follow, or watching funny videos on my Explore page. Instead, I was just glaring at my own profile, viewing my life, filters, and witty captions through the lens of one of my followers. In that moment, when I realized what I was doing, I had to assume I wasn't alone in this. So, why do I look at my own Instagram posts just to see what other people see?
I'd love to say this one random morning was the only time I've done this, but it's not. In fact, it's become part of my morning routine to open my apps and scroll through my own posts. I fall so deep into the rabbit hole of memories and editing patterns that sometimes I'm late getting ready for the day, rushing to wash my face, put on my makeup, and make breakfast.
This newfound narcissistic pattern has made me question what I'm doing and why. Am I really gaining anything from scrolling through my own feed and silently judging my pictures as if I were someone else? Am I trying to see what other people see when they look at me? Do I just like looking at myself? Turns out, my repetitive social media scrolling is fairly easy to understand, assuming I can identify what's fueling it first.
In an interview with Elite Daily, Manhattan psychologist Dr. Joseph Cilona says looking through your own profile may be a direct reflection of the "uncertainties, insecurities, and anxiety" you're dealing with. It may show you frequently debate whether your content is up to par with your goals for your account or what other people are posting regularly. You may re-review your posts to make sure they show off your lifestyle, travels, and personality positively and in the way you intended them to. You might also compare them to the curated and edited images you engage with every day.
Looking through your own profile is a reaction to the "unrealistic" climate of Instagram right now, in which your brain is loaded with distorted images of reality and goals that are "literally unattainable." Cilona says that this climate is real and impactful: "Despite the original intention of social media, to create and enhance interpersonal connection, what has emerged as a much more common experience is the feeling of less connectedness and more feelings of isolation and loneliness."
In a study from the University of Pennsylvania titled, "No More FOMO: Limiting Social Media Decreases Loneliness and Depression," Melissa G. Hunt, a licensed clinical psychologist and the Associate Director of Clinical Training in the Department of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, found that social media does have the effect Cilona speaks of, because you're only shown other people's "highlight reels." Looking through Instagram can make your life seem incredibly boring, average, and less glamorous in comparison. "Because people stream information live about the great meals they're having and the great people they’re with, it can increase a sense of social exclusion," Hunt tells Elite Daily via email.
After randomly assigning 143 undergraduates at the University of Pennsylvania to limit their social media use to 30 minutes per day for three weeks (10 minutes for Facebook, 10 minutes for Snapchat, and 10 minutes for Instagram) — in comparison to the control group that could use the apps as much as they wanted — the study revealed social media significantly increases feelings of depression and loneliness. Limited social media usage makes room for true social connection, like hanging out with your besties in real life and having intimate and deep conversations. It also allows you to "genuinely enhance" your well-being, according to Hunt, by giving you more time and energy to do things such as go to the gym to exercise or complete projects at work that'll boost your self-esteem.
However, Cilona notes that research on millennials and social media usage from Chapman University also shows Instagram and apps like it can have positive impacts and effects on users. The survey, which was conducted with 146 students online, found that engaging with inspiring content — like an influencer's creative and colorful post or a happy video — can be directly related to everyday feelings of awe and gratitude. While it may not lead to a greater feeling of connectedness to people or their experiences, your Instagram use can be productive if you're taking in #content that's meaningful to you.
The reality is, though, Instagram can also leave you feeling uncertain about your life and, in some cases, cause you to doubt yourself. In those moments when you're scrolling through your own profile just to see what other people see, what you might be searching for is comfort. You're trying to heal your "compromised self-esteem," according to Cilona.
You're falling into, what he calls, a vicious cycle — an "urgent" need to get validation from the exact source that's causing the need in the first place. It's why a lot of users catch themselves spending hours looking for the right caption, editing the highlights and shadows in their photos, and filling their camera roll with selfies until they get the "right" one. (I know I'm not the only one who obsesses over the details of their content and has texted their besties to get their approval before hitting the share button.)
You might want the confidence boost and reassurance. You might also want to believe that someone else is looking at your profile and thinking, "Wow, I want my feed to look like theirs."
We spend a lot of energy and time evaluating how many likes we have on each post and subconsciously wondering why one post had more likes than the other.
Dr. Ashley Hampton, licensed psychologist and systems strategist, says our society in general is very interested in what other people are doing and how they are individually viewed and perceived, so it's no surprise this phenomenon would also take place on social media.
Even when you think you're "just looking" at your own profile on Instagram, Hampton says you're actually judging yourself and trying to figure out how you could do better. "We spend a lot of energy and time evaluating how many likes we have on each post," she says, "and subconsciously wondering why one post had more likes than the other."
Hampton says spending your time doing this might mean you're contemplating how you can increase your likes and follower count to see where you stand compared to others, and asking yourself questions like, "What if I wrote something differently?" or "Why did the picture of me not get as many likes as another picture?" With every question, you're giving your image insecurities, fears, and worries room to grow, and keeping yourself from living your best life. You're also not giving your brain a break from engagement and "vanity metrics," as Hampton calls them, which includes the number of likes, comments, and views you get on posts from your latest cozy and dreamy trip or night out at the bar.
Courtney Glashow, LCSW owner and psychotherapist at Anchor Therapy in Hoboken, NJ, says millennials rarely take a break from social media and rely on the apps on their phone to get through various parts of their day. (For example, they might rely on the best adulting apps when they need to cook a simple meal or manage their finances.) Glashow says, millennials make use of such abundant screen time to help "distract themselves, entertain themselves, keep themselves updated on what's going on in the world, or for dating and socializing."
Over time, these behaviors and habits make creating boundaries and catching yourself in the act when you're scrolling through your own profile on Instagram even more #necessary. After all, spending a huge chunk of your day overthinking everything you say and do on the app, wondering whether it's worthy, and being 100% reliant on Instagram for validation and self-love are not healthy, sustainable ways to engage with the world.
If disconnecting from social media makes you nervous or makes your heart race, it is time to take a break.
Lucky for all of us, it's possible to disconnect and change your Instagram habits when you realize they're starting to become problematic and detrimental to your mental health. Glashow says when you first recognize social media is impacting you negatively and notice you're feeling unhappy when you scroll through your own profile or your general feed, you should embrace the unfollow button. Make it impossible for yourself to interact with accounts that "don't bring you joy."
Also, consider taking advantage of the newer features on your phone, in which you can set daily timers for your app usage. Limit yourself to 30 minutes of scrolling a day. It can make you feel like you have more control over your time and happiness, and like you don't need validation from Instagram and the digital world.
If you're still feeling anxious and doubtful, then consider taking a break from Instagram as a whole. Glashow warns it may not be immediately easy to break your habits and routines, but it will be worth it to track how much time you're spending on your app and letting that allotment decrease. It may help you to realign your focus and allow your mind to feel stimulated in other ways.
You have to get real and unfiltered with yourself. According to Hampton, you should ask yourself questions like, "Do I really need to be on all the apps?" and answer them honestly. Then, you can determine which ones are actually beneficial to you.
Odds are, this can make your social media experience a lot more enjoyable and make you feel stronger, healthier, and more confident about your life and yourself. You can find peace in looking at your own profile and joy in scrolling through the old pictures and memories instead of wondering why your posts didn't get hundreds of likes and comments.
Personally, I'm looking forward to being on time in the morning because I didn't spend so much time laying in bed, scrolling through Instagram, contemplating what filter looks best, what captions will get a bunch of likes, and why I edited that photo that specific way. It will be a weight lifted off of my shoulders, because, let me tell you, that extra time and that feeling of freedom is much better than looking at my profile and worrying about what other people see.