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-HeetiVideo 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.
ExpertiseAbrar has spent her career at CNET breaking down the latest trends on TikTok, Twitter and Instagram, while also reporting on diversity and inclusion initiatives in Hollywood and Silicon Valley.Credentials
Named a Tech Media Trailblazer by the Consumer Technology Association in 2019, a winner of SPJ NorCal's Excellence in Journalism Awards in 2022 and has twice been a finalist in the LA Press Club's National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards.
Katie Santamaria, 21, remembers the pressure she'd feel as a young teenager sharing content on
. 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
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."
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."
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).
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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