May 28, 2021 at 5:30 p.m. GMT+5:30
Facebook is touting its latest feature, which will allow Facebook and Instagram users to hide like counts on posts, as a move that aims to “depressurize” people’s experiences on its platforms. The change comes amid ongoing concern about the potentially harmful mental health effects of social media.
But although the action may be a positive step, many experts say, it isn’t likely to have much effect on the lower levels of psychological well-being seen in some users.
“This is not a panacea,” said Sophia Choukas-Bradley, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Delaware who studies the effect of social media on adolescents. “It may be a step in the right direction for some people, but I do not believe this will be a majorly transformative change.”
Jeff Hancock, founding director of the Stanford Social Media Lab, agreed. “This seems like a really smart, straightforward way to address some of the concerns that likes can be distracting and perhaps harmful if people obsess about them,” he said. “Any time you give people more options, that’s valuable.
“Do I think it’s going to have a huge impact on mental health?” he continued. “I don’t think so.”
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The change, which the tech giant announced Wednesday after almost two years of testing, gives users choices regarding likes on posts. They can hide the number of likes on other people’s posts that appear on their feeds, and they can also hide the like counts on their own posts (though they will still be able to see how many likes they’ve gotten with one click). Facebook is promoting the change as a matter of “giving people more control.”
The option to hide likes is one tool the company has been working on to address the problem of social comparison, said Kamla Modi, the director of learning and evaluation at the Jed Foundation, a mental health nonprofit that has been working with Facebook-owned Instagram. In Wednesday’s announcement, Facebook said it will continue funding more external research into people’s experiences on Instagram and issued a request for proposals from academics and nonprofits.
Likes are just one part of the social media experience, but research has shown that they can have powerful effects on mental health and well-being, both positive and negative. Adolescents, who are often highly invested in and sensitive to external approval and feedback, are particularly vulnerable to the effects of social validation.
“It feels great when people we know or people that we kind of know react positively” on social media, Hancock said. “It’s only harmful if we tend to overemphasize that or organize our lives or our behavior around that very narrow form of social validation.”
Though Modi acknowledged the new feature alone won’t solve the mental health problems that may affect social media users, many of whom are younger, she said, adding the options to hide likes demonstrates that Instagram is “dedicated to mental health” and “committed to ensuring that the user is protected.”
“The idea was that if you’re removing the likes, if you don’t see the likes, then there’s less social comparison,” she said. “We know that likes are really the currency that exists in social media.” And for businesses and influencers who rely on social media, those likes and engagements often translate into actual revenue.
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The societal and financial value that has been placed on likes — combined with the fact that Facebook and Instagram users will have to decide on their own to hide like counts — are among the reasons experts say it’s unclear how the public will be affected by this change.
The new option, they say, may not just be too little, but also too late. “Sometimes when you break something, you can’t really fix it,” said Nathan Walter, an assistant professor and lab director at Northwestern University’s Center of Media Psychology and Social Influence. “The toothpaste is out of the tube, and now we need to deal with it, and the easy fix is what we’re seeing,” he added.
“We have to still think about it in the context of all the different things that are possible within Instagram and see the culture that sort of has developed within Instagram,” said Jacqueline Nesi, an assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University.
One issue with the change that experts highlighted is the fact that the default settings on the platforms will still publicly display like counts. “We know that defaults are very powerful,” Hancock said, and many users might not take the time to fiddle with their settings and make the change.
Another concern is that, even with the new option enabled, users will easily be able to check the total number of likes on their own posts. “Adolescents will definitely take that step,” Choukas-Bradley said.
If Facebook really wants “to promote positive mental health and to depressurize the experience, then why not give some people who want it — not the influencers, but everyday people — the option to take likes completely out of their experience?” she said.
In an emailed statement, a Facebook spokesperson said the company first started testing an experience in 2019 where like counts were fully hidden to see whether it reduced some of the pressure associated with posting.
“What we found in our qualitative and quantitative research and in conversations with experts, was that for some people, it was beneficial,” the spokesperson said. “But for others, it didn’t matter as much, and they still wanted to see what was trending or popular. We didn’t see that it had a significant impact on people’s mental health or well-being, which is why we landed on giving people an option.”
But experts noted that those who would benefit most from hiding likes, such as younger people, may not use the feature. “It does take a very self-aware person to first of all, know about the different features,” Modi said. Then, people need to use the options in a way “that’s going to really protect their emotional health.”
For teens who are dealing with the additional pressures of social norms within their peer groups, choosing to hide likes may not be easy, Walter said. “It’s not like likes will stop being a symbol of status. They will be, you just won’t have access to it. You’re not part of that.” And, he added, it’s not yet known how hiding like counts on your posts might be perceived by others.
It’s possible that it could be seen as a sign of independence for some people, Hancock said. “You’re showing the world that you’re not beholden to likes.”
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Experts encouraged users to experiment with the new feature. “I actually recommend that everyone give it a try, except perhaps influencers who rely on this for their financial well-being,” Choukas-Bradley said. Users should hide the likes on their own and others’ posts, she said, “and see if they can document a change in their mood or a change in how they feel about themselves and their lives.”
Hiding likes “could make a big difference” to some people, Nesi said. The following scenarios might indicate that you would benefit from hiding likes, she and the other experts said:
If you’re worrying about likes. Constantly thinking about likes before, during or after posting; deleting a post because it didn’t get enough likes; asking others to like your post; and using apps to track how many likes you’re getting are all examples of behaviors that may interfere with well-being, experts said.
If you’re comparing yourself to others. You should also consider hiding likes if you’re focusing too much on how other people’s posts are performing. If you regularly scroll through your feed and think other people are better than you in some way, take a break from seeing the number of likes on those posts. “Looking at those images and seeing that these things you want are being rewarded with a lot of likes” can cause anxiety and may lower your mood and self-esteem, Choukas-Bradley said.
If you’re spending too much time online. “Feeling chained to a platform” is a good sign that you might want to make a change, Hancock said.
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Although hiding likes may be helpful for some people, Walter emphasized that it’s not a sufficient solution to mental health concerns related to social media.
“If this process of opting out generates the conversation about why we’re opting out and ways to deal with that environment and the psychological effects it can have on you, then that’s wonderful,” he said. “But if you just opt out and we treat this as we are trying to sweep it under the rug, that’s not going to change anything, and arguably can make things worse.”