For Facebook and Instagram, axing likes may not be about mental health after all

The platforms say they're taking measures to remove pressure and tackle harassment, but the motives aren't so clear.

Abrar Al-Heeti Video producer / CNET
Abrar Al-Heeti is a video host and producer for CNET, with an interest in internet trends, entertainment, pop culture and digital accessibility. Before joining the video team, she was a writer for CNET's culture team. She graduated with bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Though Illinois is home, she now loves San Francisco -- steep inclines and all.
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Abrar Al-Heeti
5 min read

Facebook and Instagram are experimenting with hiding likes, but critics say it's just another business move.

Angela Lang/CNET

Katie Santamaria, 21, remembers the pressure she'd feel as a young teenager sharing content on Instagram . Her friends would always caution her not to post anything until 8 p.m. to maximize the number of likes her posts would get. 

"You're not sharing to share," says Santamaria, a junior at Columbia University. "You're sharing because it's a game and it's a material way to measure social status."

That's why in July, Santamaria decided to do a social media "detox." She deleted Facebook and Instagram from her phone. She kept only the "essentials" on her home screen, such as email, text messaging and her calendar. At first, she struggled with heightened FOMO, or fear of missing out. She felt disconnected from her friends. But about two weeks in, Santamaria found she didn't miss Instagram anymore.

"I realized it's liberating to have that control over my attention," she says. "I am actively deciding every minute of my day where I'm putting my attention."

Santamaria, who's now on another social media detox, is by no means alone in her disillusionment. Instagram and its parent company, Facebook, have been criticized by users, advocacy groups and lawmakers for harboring harmful content and fostering anxiety and depression, particularly among younger audiences. In 2017, the UK's Royal Society for Public Health published a report that found Instagram is the worst social media platform for young people's mental health.

And though at least one study has found that the amount of time teenagers spend on social media isn't directly linked to higher levels of depression or anxiety, some have found these platforms can still indirectly take a toll on certain users by increasing their exposure to bullying and cutting back on their sleep and exercise. 

A series of moves this year indicates the tech giants may finally be working to tackle these issues. In the last several months, Instagram and Facebook began experimenting with hiding likes among some users. In addition, Instagram nixed its Following tab, which showed which posts and accounts people were engaging with. The platform will also reportedly block minors from seeing posts promoting certain cosmetic surgery procedures and weight loss products. 

The reason for these moves, however, isn't so clear. Though Instagram head Adam Mosseri has said hiding likes could reduce users' anxiety and stress, some experts are skeptical whether that's the company's primary motivation. 

"There could be a general trend toward acknowledging users' well being," says Ofir Turel, an associate professor of information systems and decision sciences at California State University, Fullerton. But he notes that Instagram's move could also be a matter of risk mitigation in the face of intense scrutiny. The makers of Fortnite, for instance, were sued earlier this year for allegedly designing the game to be addictive. Companies like Instagram could be looking to avoid a similar fate, he says.

A Facebook representative said the company is "testing private like counts because we want Instagram to be a place where people feel comfortable expressing themselves. Our bottom line is not a motivating factor for the test."

Part of the puzzle

Hiding likes could be a positive step toward improving users' mental health, says Renee Engeln, a psychology professor at Northwestern University. But the move may not be driven by a desire to look out for users. 

"I'd love to think it's because they care about everyone's mental health, but that's not their job," she says. "We should never assume these for-profit social media companies are after improvements in our own mental health. They're not in the business of taking care of us. They wouldn't be selling our private data if that were the case."

A concern among some users, particularly influencers, is whether hiding likes will lead to a drop in user engagement. Mosseri has said Instagram "will make decisions that hurt the business if they're good for people's well-being and health, because it has to be good for the business over the long run."

Likes are just one part of an intricate puzzle. What Facebook and Instagram should consider if they truly care about users' mental well-being, Engeln says, is curbing the presence of harmful content such as posts promoting unhealthy or unrealistic body image. Instagram's decision to block minors from seeing content promoting plastic surgery is a step in the right direction, she says, but "it's still a drop in the bucket."

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Sophia Choukas-Bradley, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, says hiding likes could reduce social comparison but might not prevent people from placing an unhealthy emphasis on their own appearance, since they'll still be able to see how many likes their own posts get (though that number will be hidden from other users). 

Going forward, another issue Instagram and Facebook will likely have to address more aggressively is bullying and harassment. Millions of Facebook and Instagram posts were removed between April and September for violating rules regarding hate speech, sexual activity and other offensive content, the companies said. In July, Instagram rolled out an AI-powered feature that lets users know if they're about to post a hurtful comment, and in October the platform launched an anti-bullying feature called Restrict that lets users decide which comments can show up on their posts

Though measures like this could end up having a positive impact on mental health, Engeln says users shouldn't count on platforms like Instagram and Facebook to protect them. Rather, they should think about how they use social media and why. She recommends people curate their feeds more carefully so they're not constantly exposed to posts that make them feel envious or ashamed. She also suggests that people think more carefully about what they're posting and consider whether they're sharing pictures just to win people's admiration.

It's not yet clear if or how removing likes will impact the way people use Facebook and Instagram. Santamaria -- who says her goal isn't to be off social media forever, but rather to "use it in a smart way" to leverage connections -- isn't convinced much will change. 

"People will still use Instagram," she says, "and they'll still find ways to quantify their social clout."

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