An Instagram Without 'LIKES'? Amid growing links between social media and anxiety, the photo sharing app launches an experiment.

AuthorDe Stefani, Lucia

Like many of his peers, Zedrick McCall has worried about the sting of online rejection: If one of his posts on Instagram fails to attract many fans, "it kind of makes you feel you're not liked, or that your content isn't worth liking," says the senior at Sidney Lanier High School in Montgomery, Alabama.

Hundreds of millions of users worldwide have flocked to Instagram, in part to experience the rush of having their photos or videos publicly liked by more and more people. But amid a growing concern that the thirst for digital acceptance may be fueling anxiety and depression, particularly in young people, Instagram is considering upending one of its most prominent features: In a preliminary test that began in November with some American users, the social media company is hiding the like counts that usually appear beneath people's posts. The new interface has already been tested in seven other countries, including Canada, Brazil, and Japan.

"We don't want Instagram to feel like a competition," Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri said last spring. "We want people to worry a little less about how many likes they're getting on Instagram and spend a bit more time connecting with the people they care about."

Competitive Pressure

Most social media apps are built on a system of "popularity metrics," indicators such as the number of likes, friends, or followers that attest to the success of a post or a user. But experts say that while likes can produce an immediate thrill, they can also ratchet up competitive pressure among peers, which in turn can lead to psychological distress and low self-esteem. More and more users have complained of stress and anxiety related to the feedback they receive on social media, spurring debate in the tech industry over how apps make people feel.

Teens, the age group that relies most on social media to forge social connections, are especially vulnerable. A study published last year by the American Psychological Association found that mental health problems have risen significantly among young people in the U.S. In the past decade, the number of people reporting symptoms of depression increased 52 percent among 12- to 17-year-olds and 63 percent among 18- to 25-year-olds. Experts say that protracted time spent on social media and electronic communication may be a factor.

"We know that kids seek validation via the Like button. We know that it can negatively affect kids' and teenagers' self-esteem," says Jim Steyer, chief executive...

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