11 is the magic number. On Instagram that is. Because that’s the number of likes you typically need to get a neat number nestled beneath your picture. That little number which simultaneously means so little but so much, despite our unwillingness to admit it. I'm not unwilling.
Every picture I post on Instagram is an attempt to get at least 11 likes. I’ve asked friends to like a particular picture before, just to bump it up. If I put something on Facebook I closely monitor its popularity. A like on a tweet is, for me, like gold dust. I’m acutely aware that this kind of behaviour is deeply uncool and I’m also acutely aware that I'm just saying what a lot of people are already thinking and doing.
There are far more important things that we, as 20-something adults, should be worrying about; Brexit, what's for dinner, how we’ll never afford a house, what’s really up with Justin Bieber right now… Instead, I’m busy counting the Instagram likes (or lackof) on my most recent picture. I like to think of myself as a reasonably together woman, but my social media anxiety would disagree.
Facebook introduced their like button in 2009 – five years after its initial launch. Now, seven years down the line, and after a facelift, it's difficult to imagine life without the 'like' icon. Would we all be walking around wondering what people thought about our latest profile picture or would that not even be a consideration, because it never even existed? There have been 1.13 trillion likes on Facebook since it launched in 2004, 4.5 billion every day and 3,125,000 new likes a minute. That;'s a lot of likes: we obviously like to 'like'. On Instagram, Justin Bieber recently overtook Kendall Jenner for the most liked picture with a not-modest-at-all 3.6 million likes.
I asked psychologist Dr Max Blumberg why a lot of us suddenly seem to care about this kind of thing and he laughed. Because it’s not a new thing at all. ‘People have always needed approval because human beings are social creatures, so it’s no coincidence that it’s called social media,’ he explained. ‘There are very few living creatures that can do it on their own and generally one does better in groups, so social media takes the group concept to the extreme, where we can now communicate with each other even more.’ This makes a lot of sense, fitting in and being part of The Group, is written into our DNA – we need others to survive. Literally; studies have actually shown that loneliness can kill us. What social media has done is take this ancient concept and added a modern, more obvious, dimension.
A lot of how we relate to social media comes down to personality types. ‘People definitely do differ in the extent to which they need external approval. In psychology we’d say that people who are very “together” or developed mentally mature, are less reliant on approval or likes,’ Dr Blumberg explained. Which makes total sense because essentially, when we put something into the public domain it's because we're inviting feedback; hopefully positive feedback at that.
In 2014 Thailand’s Department of Mental Health issued a warning that young people’s obsession with likes could affecting their mental health and could ‘affect the development of the country’ and ‘hinder the country’s creativity and innovation’. This line on social media is well-rehearsed: that social media is ruining us, destroying our self-esteem. The Dove Self Esteem project found that two-thirds of women felt prettier online than in real life and 60% of university age students admitting it negatively affects their confidence and a study by Anxiety UK found that over half of the 298 people polled, over half felt that social media changed their behaviour negatively.
So the stats seem to be there, but how far is social media actually changing us? ‘I think it’s more noticeable because you didn’t see those people when there wasn’t social media, but I don’t think the percentage of insecure people has changed because Facebook has come along,’ Dr Blumberg told me. ‘You’ve got to make a distinction between behaviour – what people do on the outside – and what people are like on the inside. I’m suggesting that social media hasn’t changed what people are like on the inside, your personality hasn’t changed - if you were insecure before Facebook, you’re insecure on Facebook.’ However, it has changed how people act on the outside because it provides an outlet that didn't exist before. Facebook and other social media platforms are tools that have allowed us to put ourselves out there and be more open and vocal about these feelings. It’s easy to forget the positive side of social media though because whilst it does open up the floor to more outside criticism, by the same token it does the opposite – it makes the person open to positive feedback.
Some people even go so far as to delete something if it doesn’t get enough likes like Bella, 23, who told me she’s deleted Instagram posts that didn’t get many likes before. ‘I have absolutely no idea why I care about it and objectively know it's stupid - but I feel so much happier after I hit the 11 likes,’ she explained. ‘I also wouldn't say I care a lot about it - it doesn't ruin my day or anything. If I put up an Instagram that didn't get any likes, I'd probably just think lol, that's a bit embarrassing, and maybe take it down depending on my mood.’ Which is exactly it really, isn’t it? By putting a picture on social media or a witty remark you’re opening yourself up to judgement in the hope that you’ll get positive feedback. In a way, you’re making yourself vulnerable to the thoughts of others, so it’s not surprising that if it doesn’t elicit the reaction you’d hoped for your pride takes a hit. We’re seeking approval from our peers and it’s not nice when we don’t get it – you want people to think your ‘content’ is funny/interesting/likeable. ‘If you have low self-esteem and you don’t do well on social media, you’re going to feel particularly bad. But who can honestly say that they’re so secure in this world that when they do something on social media, and it isn’t liked at all, it doesn’t eat you a little bit inside?’ said Dr Blumberg.
He also doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting ‘likes’ on social media; it’s nothing to be ashamed of, which is reassuring to hear. ‘It’s worse to pretend you’re not human and not care - you msut embrace your humanity and say, “that hurt!”’ he explains. As with anything there’s a fine line between caring and becoming obsessed. ‘If you find that you are constantly seeking approval that is a problem, that shouldn’t be the case. It’s based on how happy you feel - if you’re feeling unhappy more than 30% of the time in your life, you should be asking yourself why.’ Identifying this distinction is important and if the number of engagments or likes you're getting on social media is starting to take over your life, it's time to take a step back.
Naturally, we seek the approval of those around us. We want to be likedm to feel part of a pack, because going it alone is risky business. It even explains why we dress the way we do. It’s not bad to be concerned about what others think of us – it’s natural and it’s what makes us human – but equally, it’s important to be comfortable in our own thoughts and feelings. To know that what we like and think and believe is enough and that we don’t need a mouse click to validate that.
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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.