Last week, Instagram announced that American users will soon notice a big change in how they use the platform: likes will be hidden from the public. Earlier this year, Instagram began hiding likes in seven countries, including Canada, Japan, and Australia, and as early as this week, the change will begin rolling out in the U.S.
While viewers will still be able to see how many likes their own photos receive, other Instagram users won’t be shown a number — so you’ll know that your selfie from this week got more likes than your selfie from last week, but you won’t be able to tell if the photo got more likes than your friend’s. Follower counts and comments will still be publicly visible, though in late 2018, Instagram re-designed the profile page to make follower counts less prominent.
And though some influencers are concerned about the impact on their business, others have gotten behind the idea. Kim Kardashian West — who has 151 million Instagram followers — recently said she approves of the change. “As far as mental health… I think taking the likes away and taking that aspect away from [Instagram] would be really beneficial for people,” she said during an appearance at The New York Times’ DealBrook Conference. “I know the Instagram team has been having a bunch of conversations with people to get everyone’s take on that and they’re taking it really seriously, and that makes me happy.”
Jennifer Dragonette, PsyD, Executive Director, Northern California at Newport Academy, tells Refinery29 that receiving a like “produces a physiological high by triggering our ‘reward cycle.’ This rush or good feeling is due to dopamine.” She points to research that shows that when they get a lot of likes on a photo, teenagers’ brains react in a similar way to eating chocolate or winning money. But external validation seems to play at least some part in that dopamine rush. In the study, teens were also more likely to double-tap images that were already popular. Hitting triple digits on a post may not feel as good if you're the only one who sees it.
While it’s too early to tell if hiding likes will positively affect mental state, Dr. Dragonette says, “there is much evidence to prove that social media does negatively impact a user’s mental health and can often lead to anxiety, depression, bullying, poor sleep, negative body image, and more.” Instagram encourages comparison — both with how many likes your friends are getting and how great their lives look. Some research suggests that people who spend a lot of time on social media often feel like their realities don't measure up to the polished snapshots they see online.
Even if it doesn't change much, she adds, hiding likes will at least help us learn more. “Whether successful or not, this move will help Instagram users and researchers determine what can make Instagram a more positive experience, and what next steps should be taken,” Dr. Dragonette says. "Users may find that their experience posting on Instagram begins to revolve more around their individual expression, rather than social comparison or perceived popularity."
The decision even has the potential to change how we use Instagram. “It will be interesting to see the research that comes out of this shift, and how much the concept of privately viewed likes impacts one’s mental health, as opposed to the idea of collecting likes as a symbol and outward sign of approval from one’s friends and followers,” Dr. Dragonette says. But for now, we’ll have to wait and see.