Like many girls her age, Hanna Russell, 21, first created an Instagram account when she was in high school, as a way to keep in touch with her friends. But after she landed a modeling contract, her number of followers grew to the low thousands. A modeling gig with American Eagle Outfitters led to an even bigger increase in followers. She now has 12,500.
Before she knew it, Hanna was getting offers to model or advertise products on Instagram. And with that came overwhelming pressure to keep up a "perfect" image — a thin body, lustrous hair and an eye-catching expression, enhanced by flawless lighting.
At first, Russell's drive to get likes was "a form of reassurance, a confidence booster," she told Mic. But gradually, "it became my only way to feel like I was good enough."
"I used to love the feedback I would get from people and the comments that they would leave on my photos... it was a type of validation to who I was as a person," Russell said. "With wanting to have the perfect Instagram picture and account comes so much stress and pressure to maintain that."
Russell isn't the only Instagrammer to feel the unique pressures of social media. With "Insta-famous" celebrities like Essena O'Neill speaking out about the anxiety and stress they've felt to post photos that will get as many likes as possible, it's becoming clear that social media can be truly damaging to users' mental health. Research from the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology shows that depression and anxiety set in when users compare and attempt to keep up with the idealized lives presented by other social media users, and the drive to get likes overshadows real life.
Behind many of the seemingly effortless bikini shots and magazine-worthy photos of yoga poses is a user who worked for hours to capture that image and is quietly stressing out over if it was pretty enough to garner hundreds of likes.
The fix for this virtual problem which, as it turns out, has very real-world consequences? Recognizing that social media just isn't real.
Social media is the ultimate highlight reel. "Social media affords an opportunity that few of us have in our 'real' lives to present ourselves in the exact way we want; to direct exactly how others see us," Peggy Drexler, assistant professor of psychology at Weill Cornell Medical College, told Mic. One British study confirmed this, finding that more than 66% of the 4,000 people surveyed admitted that they post images to make their lives seem more exciting.
But research shows that being bombarded with other people's idealized images can cause us to compare these images to our own lives, leaving us feeling inadequate. A study by the University of Michigan found that the more people checked Facebook, the less satisfied they felt with their own lives – and experts say that the photo-heavy aspects of Instagram exacerbates these effects for users.
"Unlike real life, there is often no context on social media. You see just the image the other person wants to project and not the flaws, not the whole person. For some, that can encourage a state of obsession and drive for perfection that, of course, can never be met," Drexler said.
That drive for photo perfection is something Baylynne Williford, 20, from California, knows something about. After appearing on the web series SummerBreak about two years ago, her number of followers grew to nearly 70,000, and she told Mic that she began spending hours editing photos and choosing the right caption in an attempt to achieve perfection.
"I would airbrush myself to look perfect, edit the whole photo to be brighter, better quality, etc.," Williford said. "I felt like I had to edit my photos because I didn't want someone to point out anything wrong with it, nothing for them to comment negatively on. That pressure is what made me continue to try to be perfect."
Williford, like Russell, had started to base her self-esteem on how her followers responded to her photos, and it became exhausting. It was their self-esteem that took the biggest hit.
"I didn't look in the mirror and think, 'Wow, I'm beautiful.' Actually, it was the opposite, and I felt like I couldn't understand what everyone was seeing," Russell said. "For a long time I felt like I needed to have the perfect photo for Instagram because I needed people to think of me in a way that I couldn't see myself."
The pressure can be overwhelming: CNN's "Being 13" study analyzed 200 eighth graders and their social media use. The study found that 61% of the teens heavily monitored their social media to see if they were getting likes and comments, with some checking their accounts more than 100 times a day. The reasons are scientific: the "reward" of new content and positive feedback on your page activates the brain's reward centers and encourages addictive behavior.
And when you have thousands of followers awarding most of their likes and comments to photos that purely show off the user's body, as well as highly staged posts that uphold typical standards of beauty, it can be difficult as a user not to feed into that, said Ivy Carnegie, 28, from California.
Carnegie has more 15,000 followers on Instagram thanks to her juice business and modeling photos. She said that the more she receives breathless comments like "You're perfect" and "#goals" in her comments, it's all too easy to focus on posting more images that will attract those shallow comments.
"The feedback becomes way more superficial, and I think that it becomes an empty addiction. The account no longer has to post intelligent or mind-stimulating content," Carnegie said. "[Instagram users] are, without always being aware, encouraged by their followers to 'dumb down' and sexualize their post."
When users fixate on snapping that pic that will show them at their most beautiful, their "real" lives suffer. Studies have shown that women and men who spend more time on Facebook are more likely to feel negatively about themselves after viewing someone else's photos.
"Overusing social media can lead to obsessive social comparison, creating a constant need to one-up yourself, and everyone else, with every online post and, eventually, real life [events that you can then post about online]," Drexler said. "Reality, meanwhile, begins to dim."
For Russell, her social media use led her to spend entire days taking photos in different locations and different outfits, even working out extra hard or skipping meals if she was going to be in a bikini.
"I got to a point in my life where I just wasn't happy, I never felt satisfied with what I was doing and as soon as the picture went up and an hour or so would pass, my high went to an extreme low," Russell said.
Agreed Williford, "I was trying to achieve perfection instead of living my life."
"I was trying to achieve perfection instead of living my life."
The solution? Embrace reality. Callioppe*, who goes by @localsparrow on Instagram, has 90,000 followers as a result of her membership in the Suicide Girls modeling community. She told Mic she prevents the onset of social media anxiety by viewing her Instagram as a "catalogue" of her life (good and bad), and recognizing that, like magazine covers, most social media images have been touched up and scrutinized.
"I think it's important for people to keep in mind that [for the most part] an Instagram is about as accurate a portrayal of a person's life as an old family photo album," she said. "In a photo album we are smiling in pristine little laminated squares, next to more little smiling squares in between pages of us smiling on that trip to Hawaii and Tom's second birthday, or whatever. We don't hold on to the fights or tears, the betrayal, the arguments."
Williford said after seeing O'Neill's posts calling herself out for not being "real" on social media, she was inspired to live her life the way she wants. She edited past captions to reflect the truth behind the photos, and vowed to post only unedited photos from now on. For example: A post of herself wearing a pink swimsuit now includes the caption "EDIT: airbrushed so I can feel like I look better than I do."
Russell said she, too, was inspired by another user's honesty and decided to edit captions to show what was really going on behind the scenes (a strategy that has, in itself, been adopted by many Instagram users like O'Neill and often draws even more followers, likes, and comments to the user's page). A photo of herself smiling while wearing a cropped tank top and skinny pants is now captioned, "Fake smile, uncomfortable outfit. This does nothing but give a false impression of my life and who I am #celebrityconstruct #socialmediaisnotreallife."
"Everyone needs to know that it's okay to be exactly who you are, and that everyone is beautiful just the way they are," Russell said. "No one needs to have a million followers or receive thousands of likes just to feel like they are worth something."
*First name has been changed to allow subject to speak freely on private matters.