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How Instagram hiding likes from photos might save us from our social media anxiety

Zeba Rashid still remembers her first Instagram post in 2012: a blurry cell phone photo of a concert she attended in Manhattan. "I had no concept of filtering my picture for likes at that time. All I cared about was sharing fun picture of a cool band," the Harvard graduate student tells Mic via email. Yet as time went on, she began to feel pressured to only post photos that were "carefully curated" and had creative captions, in order to get more likes. She certainly wasn't alone. Many Instagram users are concerned with getting as many likes as possible, often to the detriment of their mental health. Now that the app is beginning a trial that will hide public like counts, though, the way we use the app — and how it affects our brain — might permanently change.

On April 30, Instagram announced at the F8 2019 conference that starting this week in Canada, like counts on posts and video views will be hidden in order to help users “focus on the photos and videos you share, not how many likes they get," as TechCrunch reports. You'll still be able to see your own likes if you choose to, but they won't be available at first glance — you'll have to click to open a window. Even more, Instagram is redesigning profiles to make follower counts less prominent.

After the test run in Canada, the trial might expand to other markets in the near future, and many users are curious to see what the effects of Instagram removing public likes might be. Like Rashid notes, constantly focusing on your engagement rate isn't the healthiest, and if a post does not receive the expected quantity of likes you thought it would, you might find your self-esteem sinking. Will taking away likes make this less of a problem? Will we feel better while using the app overall?

Very possibly. According to several studies, although likes and other social media interactions can release dopamine in your brain, aka the chemical that makes humans happy (typically released after a great meal, sex, or successful event), not checking your phone can increase cortisol, also known as the stress hormone. As such, it's a vicious cycle: you feel immediate pleasure from a user's double tap on your photo, then put your phone down, and suddenly, the stress hormones are nearly begging you to check your feed again to get another release of that sweet dopamine in your brain's reward center.

In an interview with CBS News, Ramsay Brown, the cofounder of Dopamine Labs, theorized that Instagram strategically engineered the algorithm that complies likes and new followers together in a group to give users an even larger dopamine boost, keeping you even more attached to the app. "You are guinea pigs in the box pushing the button and sometimes getting the likes. And they’re doing this to keep you in there," said Brown.

Indeed, in many ways, social media uses the same strategies as gambling to keep users hooked and dependent on the little boosts from notifications, which — like with gambling — isn't exactly good for our health. In fact, frequent use of apps like Facebook and Instagram have been linked to higher reported rates of depression in kids and young adults, and as Time reports, Instagram has even been voted the worst social media app for mental health by its users.

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Although some people are capable of totally detaching from their phones, most of us find digital minimalism nearly impossible. Since we’ve come to rely on the bursts of pleasure from those little hearts and thumbs up and as such, leaving social media completely often doesn't feel like an option. Instagram getting rid of likes, though, could be enough to make a serious change.

For one thing, posts might start becoming far less curated. "The pressure of creating that picture perfect post for Instagram likes has really steered away from what is authentic in a user, and a follower's life has become a tool for self-validation," says Rashid. "I think with hiding likes, users will not be compelled to create a false narrative on their feed but perhaps share more authentic and unfiltered content."

New York-based Instagram user Lubna Hassan agrees, adding that hiding likes will allow her to perceive images in an unbiased way, rather than liking things solely based on how many other people have liked the same content. "I think it’ll force people to engage with each other more. It’ll ask users to leave a comment and ask questions rather than just like a photo since the value of a like is no longer present," she says. "People will really think about their content and post meaningful images to create more engagement. Something that moves users to speak up rather than tap twice."

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The hiding of likes can also create some much needed reprieve for people who rely on social media for their careers. Lizzie Benson, a brand designer and blogger, found herself going places and buying things just to post on Instagram, yet as her follower count grew, she found herself "in a very low place," she says. "Instead of making me happier, [growing my Instagram] just made the pressure more and more real. I was often left feeling angry, inadequate and unhappy when I worked hard on content and it didn't get as many likes as I thought it should."

When she heard that Instagram will start hiding like counts, Benson says she initially felt "annoyed and confused," but after thinking on it more, she realized "it could mean a certain amount of freedom from constantly obsessing over my Instagram content and how it is perceived... it may be a small step, but I know it would help curb my own anxious, obsessive tendencies, and can only imagine the same would be true for others."

Instagram isn't the first social media app to try to get users to reprioritize our thinking (after originally warping it); in late 2018 Twitter redesigned its iOS app to make follow counts less obvious. Instagram's step in this regard is the biggest yet, though, and the inability to determine value based on arbitrary tallies of double taps and followers might just completely change the way we use social media, and send us back to the unfiltered, honest, pressure-free posting of Instagram's early days.