It’s now been almost two months since Instagram announced it would be removing the total number of likes on posts in Australia as part of a controversial trial.
While the move has divided opinion among the public, Facebook – the owner of Instagram – has made its motives extremely clear.
“We want Instagram to be a place where people feel comfortable expressing themselves,” Facebook ANZ director of policy Mia Garlick said at the time.
Amidst the continual scrutiny around the spread of fake news and data protection, ensuring the well-being of users remains a focus for the Zuckerberg-led company.
Speaking in Sydney last week, Facebook research scientist Moira Burke shared evidence on how Facebook and Instagram impact on user’s overall well-being.
“It’s not about how much time you spend on social media, it’s how you use it,” she said.
“When using social media, and this is true for Facebook and Instagram, when you talk one-on-one with people that you care about, we see improvements in your well-being.
“But if you just sit back and passively consume a lot of content, just scrolling, that’s not good for well-being.”
The idea of ‘passive consumption’ has been on the radar of Instagram for some time now. Last year the platform introduced the ‘You’re All Caught Up’ feature to alert users when they have seen every post on their newsfeed from the last two days.
As well as letting users know they haven’t missed out on anything, it also serves as a gentle nudge to users that it might be time to have a break from Instagram.
Similarly, Instagram’s algorithms willy identify who your nearest and dearest are and places their posts at the top of your newsfeed, so you can be confident you haven’t missed anything important without wasting hours scrolling.
“The other reason why passive consumption is basically bad for you, is because if you spend all your time on your phone, you’re missing out on opportunities to interact with people face-to-face,” said Burke.
Burke also discussed the “reverse-causal” interpretation between device use and loneliness.
“When you’re feeling distressed about things happening in your life, or you’re feeling lonely, you then choose to spend more time on social media as an escape,” she said.
“There are a tonne of studies that show people that spend more time on their phones are lonelier.”
While it is unclear whether people are lonely because they spend time on their phones or if people spend time on their phones because they are lonely, Burke explained Facebook is investigating “problematic” uses of its platforms in this sense.
The likes experiment
With the likes removal trial now rolling into its third month, the impact of the change is becoming clearer.
A recent study by influence agency Social Soup found 49 per cent of Australian influencers either ‘like’ or ‘love’ the change, while Sling & Stones’ Callan Green recently told B&T the trial could “level the playing field” for smaller brands using the platform.
But what about for the more typical user of the platform, the one who is more likely to pull 30 likes than 30,000 for their selfie?
“What we have seen has been really promising,” said Instagram’s global head of public policy Karina Newtonwhen asked about how the change has impacted user well-being.
More insights from the trial are expected to be made available in the coming weeks.
With Facebook having invested so much into enhancing user well-being, some eyebrows were raised earlier this month when the company announced it was trying its hand in online dating.
Popular dating apps Tinder and Bumble have copped their fair share of criticism for negatively impacting on user’s mental health, with Social Psychiatry Research and Interest Group’s Rob Whitley, Ph.D suggesting these platforms dehumanise the dating experience.
But Facebook isn’t shying away, launching Facebook Dating in the US as well as Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, and several other countries.
Although the product is not yet in Australia, a Facebook Australia policy communications manager Ben McConaghy explained it is just another case of balancing the advantages of the internet with the potential harms.
“Different platforms can be used for both good and bad, and it (Facebook Dating) does have a bunch of features built-in to it to help people connect, but I think this well-being research will fit into future iterations of the product over time,” he said.
McConaghy stressed there were no plans to roll out the Facebook Dating service in Australia in the near future.