Jo Rowe decided on a social media fast and while she did, assess the good, the bad, and the ugly of Instagram


We have been talking about the spiritual practice of fasting in our church recently. Our focus has been looking at the things in our daily lives that take up time and distract us from things that do us good and connect us to Jesus. Some members of our group are fasting food for a day. I felt challenged to fast social media for a while. I have deleted the Instagram and Facebook apps off my phone with the intention to have less screen time and less attention sucked out of my life!

I feel quite a bit of shame around my social media usage, actually. I don’t post a lot: the odd holiday snap; the odd article repost. However, my random scrollings that lead me down rabbit holes or randomness are the problem. I am not watching anything immoral or nasty, but my shame comes from the banality of time spent. I can speed 30 minutes at a time watching videos of babies and cats. At the end of those 30 minutes, I look up from my phone and feel real guilt that I have wasted time. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with videos of babies and cats, it’s just the sheer mindlessness of scrolling that’s the issue. I don’t actively choose to spend my time scrolling, but I allow it to happen to me; I don’t actively stop it. I am a 40 year old woman. I am supposed to have some self control!

This social media fast has allowed me to see the effect that Instagram and Facebook have on my life. It has caused me to look, in a more balanced way, at the hold it has on me, and because I am a parent to teens, how it affects society as a whole. Are we richer because we are seemingly “more connected”?

’Social media terrifies me!’

As a parent, social media terrifies me! If I, an experienced, relatively self-aware woman of 40 can get sucked into the vortex of empty scrolling, what would it do to my teen? Is social media an inevitable part of growing up, a useful, essential tool, or is it just an attention drain that saps the self confidence out of our children? I decided to find out! (For more on social media, go here).

I decided to look at just one platform to base my research on. I chose Instagram because that is my weakness and also because it is listed as one of the most dangerous apps for children, according to Psychology Today.

Instagram is a social media platform that focuses around photos and live videos created to inspire creativity through visual storytelling. First launched in 2010, it took the world by storm, quickly becoming the most popular form of social media. It has over 1 billion monthly users ranging from “celebrity influencers” to brands and just your average user. In fact, over 500 million users post daily. And 52% of teens say they feel the pressure to have an Instagram presence.

So what’s good? 

Well, Instagram truly does have some wonderful pictures! Depending on which accounts you follow, there are posts that are there to uplift, inspire and encourage! Photographers, artisans, artists and creatives create content that celebrates the beauty and diversity of the world. Where else can you watch the process of ancient Peruvian rug making and the serenity of a morning kayak journey through the crystal still waters of Eikesdalsvatnet, in Norway, all in one place?

There’s no doubt about it, Instagram can be an incredibly inspiring and beautiful way to spend time. Psychologists, pastors and positive influencers can use Instagram to reach people they might not usually have access to, spreading hope, tools and tips to live a more fulfilling life. The term “influencers” can work both ways; our teens can be influenced but also be influencers. Instagram is a great place to create a narrative that reaches lots of people. Some Christian teens have fantastic accounts that seek to grow deep faith and Holy Spirit connection in people their age.

Personally, I like to follow accounts that celebrate random acts of kindness and “Good News” stories that show how wonderful people can be! I have learnt about bible journaling, devotions, christian inner healing and parenting through instagram; its a great way to connect with likeminded people and create a community.

Instagram is also a fantastic way to connect with friends who don’t live nearby, and allow them a glimpse into your life. My Aunt gets to see what we got up to on holiday and post her comment about “how much the kids have grown”. There is definite joy to find on Instagram.

So what’s bad? 

Instagram is not real life. It might pretend to be real life, but with the carefully curated, edited, filtered and posed photos, the terrifying aim of many “influencers” is to create an ideal that others are envious of!

For our teens, who are already battling the need to know where they fit in, this curated version of what’s popular and fashionable, can set unrealistic standards and too many points of unhealthy comparison. The pressing need to be liked and admired, can see teens try harder and harder to get likes, followers and comments on their posts, limiting their worth to mere quantifiable numbers.

This can create very real mental health issues in our teens. Likes and comments, or lack thereof, can cause real harm and, also, provide a place of very direct, and possibly, cruel instant feedback on posts. Psychologists at RSPH’s Youth Health Movement have connected increased anxiety, depression,severe sleep deprivation issues, eating disorders and FOMO (real Fear of Missing Out) with increased Instagram use. Body dysmorphia and over exercise are bi-products of the fitness industry that is heavily advertised on Instagram. Unrealistic bodies, posed to show “fitness results”, can set unrealistic body goals for teens who are still growing and changing.

 So what’s ‘ugly’?

Scientist Dr Anna Lembke describes social media as a way to drugify human connection. Dopamine is a naturally-occurring chemical that triggers our inner reward system. This Dopamine system is designed to help us connect and interact with people face to face. It enables us to enjoy people, and other things in life. However, too much dopamine released, too easily, is addictive. Instagram is a place where we see flashing lights, rankings, beautiful people and images, with minimal effort on our part, making the brain release more dopamine than it would in a typical real-life interaction. This high dopamine release with minimal effort is at similar levels to taking a drug, hence why, social media is so totally addictive.

Instagram has strict community guidelines and policies against inappropriate and sexually explicit content, however there are ways around this, and it is possible for teens to use hashtags, and secret emojis to direct themselves to explicit content. Certain hashtags have been used for the illegal sale of drugs and to sell porn. Some content is offered with a warning but is navigational by pressing “choose to show”. However, through direct messages it is very easy to share disappearing photos between private users. Auto play of videos can also cause issues as teens can accidentally watch something that is not right for them because it happens to follow an innocent video.

Instagram can be a place where secretive behaviour is encouraged. People can pretend to be whoever they like, and curating pictures and hiding behind filters is regular practice. It is also regular practice to have several different accounts, this could be a problem if teens want to hide behaviour from their parents.

My verdict

Instagram isn’t inherently evil! There are many wonderful things about it, and like it or not, social media is around to stay. As parents, understanding the pitfalls of Instagram is really important; education ahead of time and initiating conversations at a suitable age, allows us to be ahead of any situation our kids might face. Whether or not we decide to allow our kids to use Instagram is a personal parenting decision, probably based on each teen and their personal character and journey, however, I think, as parents, it’s important we don’t just bury our heads in the sand of ignorance and leave our teens to navigate Instagram without many careful conversations.

My teens don’t have social media, although we have talked about it and made it clear that they are welcome to have an account with some parental control. My eldest, at 16, feels that school relationships are hard enough without adding a whole other level of connection and interaction into the mix. She also has realised that, as a person with a high need for connection, Instagram might create unhealthy habits for her. My other daughter, at 14, just has no interest in social media, she regularly mocks me for using Instagram!

I am not sure how long my social media fast will last. For now, I feel that it is something that The Lord is speaking to me about. But, I am using this fast as an opportunity to have open conversations with my kids about how social media has affected me and the difference a fast is making! I am hoping that it shows them that managing ourselves, and listening to the conviction of The Holy Spirit, is an important part of personal social media usage.