Comparison just might be the number one killer of self-confidence. With social media putting the highlight reel of other people’s lives on loop, weighing your life against someone else’s can feel nearly impossible to avoid.
In an effort to change that, Instagram is rolling out a new policy: banning likes. Back in April, the photo sharing super app announced it would start hiding the like count on users' posts, testing the new ban in specific countries. The goal is to make the app feel less "like a competition," Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, announced at a conference.
“We want people to worry a little bit less about how many likes they’re getting on Instagram and spend a bit more time connecting with the people they care about," Mosseri told the attendees.
Canada was the first nation to say so long to likes, and Ireland, Italy, Japan, Brazil, Australia, and New Zealand came next. While users in these countries can still see the number of likes on their own photos, they can't view the tally on anyone else's posts. They can, however, see who liked another user's photo—meaning they could do a manual count, if they wanted to take the time.
Instagram hasn't said if the test has been successful, nor have they explained how they're determining what success means. There's also no word on how long the like ban will be tested in each country—or if there are plans to expand the test to other parts of the globe (*cough* like the US *cough*).
So would an Instagram without a like count be an Instagram without the anxiety-provoking pressures of comparison? Free of the "felt cute, but might delete later" mentality that leads users to take down a post they initially felt confident about simply because it didn't score enough likes?
Mark Leary, PhD, professor emeritus of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University and a specialist in social emotions and anxiety, tells Health he believes it's like putting a Band-Aid on the issue—it'll help, but it won't end comparisons.
"In everyday life, we compare ourselves to others even in the absence of direct feedback—'she's prettier,' 'he's more athletic,' 'she's smarter,' 'he's meaner,' etcetera," Leary says. "But it ramps up the comparison when we can see people's reactions to others. It becomes, 'everybody likes her,' 'people really respect him,' 'others don't like her,' and so on."
"So we certainly compare ourselves to others without knowing how they are judged, but it gets more intense when those judgments are explicit," he adds.
In Instagram terms, that reads: People are still going to compare themselves to the photos they see on the app, but the conclusions they draw from their comparisons will be determined by what they personally feel, not what Instagram users as a whole think. For example, they might think, I like that photo better than mine or Her clothes are cooler than mine. But without being able to compare the like count on their photos to that of someone else's, they're less likely to conclude, Everybody likes her photo better or Everybody thinks her clothes are cooler.
"There's a level of intensity that gets toned down by taking away that very clear number," Melanie Katzman, PhD, a New York City psychologist who specializes in women's mental health and body image, tells Health. "We can't avoid social comparison. We're social beings, and competition is part of what gives people drive. But you want to have the right balance, and the numeric attached to the likes is a very public display, as if you have a constant count on your popularity."
"Toning this down and making it more private is definitely a step in the right direction," Katzman believes.
While many Instagram users, particularly influencers who work with brands to promote services or products on the platform, have criticized the like ban (mainly because it may hurt their business), others support the change.
Ariella Nyssa, an Australian influencer with over 250K followers, tells Health, "Since like count was hidden, I've been able to focus a lot more on what I really want to share. I'm not as focused on others' popularity. It's more about who they really are and the type of content they post."
Nyssa has been striving for authenticity on her page long before Instagram announced the like ban. She regularly posts pictures of her body au naturel—cellulite, rolls, and all. Her goal: To help people see past the "popularity contest" that Instagram has become. "Social media should be used to help people," she says, "and I think hiding likes will help so many young people, especially when it comes to mental health and body image."
Both Leary and Katzman say the like ban may also make people more aware of how electronic communication is becoming a replacement for human connection, and what the implications of this are.
Katzman compares obsessing over likes to obsessing over the number on the scale. "It's like getting a continual report card," she says. "There are people who get up every morning and they weigh themselves and decide whether it's a good day or a bad day. Scale goes down, mood goes up. Instagram likes go up, mood goes up. Both are extremely toxic." Basically, neither of those numbers should control our happiness.
Leary also says people have the illusion that likes are a diagnostic indicator of their actual social value or acceptance.
"Whether someone likes a post has absolutely no implications for my actual well-being, unlike whether I'm liked in real life, which affects my friendships, social life, romantic possibilities, various opportunities, job prospects, and more," Leary says. "This is one of those cases where a psychological process that evolved to serve an important function in face-to-face relations, to lead us to do things that increase our value and acceptance in our group, makes no sense in the modern world."