The Psychology of Instagram; Can It Be Used for Business?

Article by Anna Cantwell

If Instagram had a walk-up song, it would be “Look at Me Now.” With eight-year-olds instragramming their packed lunches, high schoolers snapping selfies with a peace signs, and college students photographing every moment of their truly life-changing study abroad trips, the result is a massive collection of idealized images. In an endless feed of photos, you can simultaneously see all the ostensibly awesome things your friends (or acquaintances, or inexplicably popular 13-year-olds in California) are eating, wearing, and doing. But how does this affect one’s psyche?


My sister was a post-grad stuck living at home, and would frequently use social media (namely Twitter) as an outlet. I urged her to delete her Instagram, however, because I could see that it was slowly driving her insane. Her feed included trust-fund babies from her graduating class having their dreams fully-funded, living picture-perfect lives in the Big Apple, or in L.A., or “backpacking” across Europe. The jealousy was killing her motivation, breeding a green monster that manifested itself stasis. Teddy Roosevelt once said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Although I don’t believe he was talking about Instagram when he said this, the statement couldn’t be truer.

As for its psychological effects, there is little research on Instagram, seeing as it has only risen to popularity in the past few years; however, studies about the effects of Facebook have been extrapolated to the increasingly popular app. In a Slate Magazine article, Jessica Winter states that a “self-loathing screen hangover” comes from “the three things that Instagram is currently for: loitering around others’ photos, perfunctory like-ing, and ‘broadcasting.’” Because Facebook has many other functions, it doesn’t appear to be as harmful—unless one is using it primarily like Instagram: rarely posting, scrolling through pictures, and “liking.” (

Furthermore, although Facebook does have photo albums, one might post 200 pictures from a vacation, which could include some snapshots of the not-so-glamorous road trip, a bad sunburn, and unfiltered photos. On Instagram, however, you have “one shot.” I’ve seen someone spend 20 minutes selecting a filter for an image—a filter for a single photo that maybe 100 people will see, and potentially “like”—an arbitrary like that somehow provides pseudo-self confidence and quasi-affirmation. So, when someone posts about their fabulous vacation on Instagram, you only see the most idealized image they could calculate—not the mundane portions, or the arguments in the car about a wrong turn, or the food poisoning from the fancy restaurant.

His and Hers

Unlike Facebook, which doesn’t appear to have any tendency towards male or female users, Instagram appears to appeal more to women. Especially in college, I know few males with Instagrams. The content, too, for genders differs greatly. Men tend to take photos of what they are doing (fishing, golfing, pulling pranks, etc.), while girls tend to photograph—well, just about anything.

For college girls, you are a terrible friend and risk being shunned if you do not post a birthday Instagram pic-stitch of a friend. Getting drinks together? Fro-yo? Are you eating anything at all or have in the past 20 minutes? There had better be an Instagram to document it. This obsessive behavior, however, must be monitored.

Numbers Game

With limited text and photo-centrality, one might not think the numbers of Instagram matter, but a few keywords help to see that it is all a numbers game. “Like-to-minute ratio” is a term that is tossed around college campuses and high schools alike; this a number you want to be high. Due to Instagram’s incredibly short half-life for photos or videos, the more likes you get in a shorter amount of time, the more pseudo-self esteem you will garner. This is likely because Instagram doesn’t post a standard time stamp, but the time elapsed since the photo has been posted.

Because of the homogeneity of the age of its users, Instagram is very popular late at night. A photo posted early in the morning, however, will accumulate very few likes. Because of this, it is essential not to post multiple photos in a row. This could result in lost followers. Most Instagrammers find that one photo per day is enough to establish a strong presence, but not so much to—God forbid—be considered annoying and unfollowed.

Another reason for the focus on these numbers is that Instagram essentially entirely mobile. Instagram’s site doesn’t even allow you to post photos, so the web eliminates its primary purpose. This is why you may see college kids at a bar sitting together, scrolling slowly through their feed—because smartphones are more of an appendage to the hand, and Instagram is an “instant” cure for boredom. If the people you are following aren’t exciting enough, Instagram has another exciting feature.

Anatomy of Exploring

On any given day, the explore tab will feature some 13-year-old making a duck face, an absurd pair of Nike’s, maybe a celebrity photo, and the most recent and by far creepiest addition—photos from friends of your friends or people in places you have geo-tagged. This isn’t a formal feature of Instagram, but rather a sneaky subliminal message that Instagram knows what you did last summer. Here’s an example of my Explore tab on a random day.


Note the recent UNC graduate; I do not know that girl, but the app knows that we will likely have some friends in common, and I might just be creepy enough to request to follow her. The other photos—four shots of a skateboard, a makeup tutorial, a random person at the gym—epitomize the demographic of Instagram. Now let’s examine this from a business perspective.


The other day the eight-year-old I babysit added me on Instagram. Her last photo got 200 likes, and I’m pretty positive she doesn’t have 200 other babysitters. Unless you are catering to an 8-22 year-old crowd, your business is wasting its time on Instagram. The products that are popular on Instagram are flashy sneakers, rhinestone phone cases, and Hello Kitty t-shirts. The user base for Instagram has little money to spend and little intention of promoting anything but themselves. As opposed to Pinterest, which is all about posting photos of the things you want, Instagram primarily focuses on what great things you already have, or what you are doing.

One example would a real estate company that take beautiful photos of beachfront properties. A stellar photo may get a thousand “likes,” but who is doing the liking? Chances are its not anyone legitimately interest in purchasing a beach house.

So, What Social Media is Good for Business?

When it comes to advertising and promoting business through social media, demographic plays a huge role. Because Facebook is almost entirely 18+, you can be sure that its user base has money, is looking to buy, and probably buys online. That being said, because it boasts over 1 billion active users, Facebook’s paid advertising is pricey. This why a large part of advertising on Facebook comes from big name brands, and why Facebook marketing is not conducive to small businesses, brands, or local entrepreneurs.

If you fall into that category, head on over to Pinterest—a site for finding and organizing web-based images and products that people want. If you haven’t been there before or need a quick overview, check out my article “How to Get Started with Pinterest for Business”.

Pinterest’s own website has tips for building your brand and success stories from mom-and-pop shops and massive companies like Four Seasons Hotels and Nordstrom. Because pins often link to a store’s website or another direct source, users, who are far and away female, can buy straight from Pinterest. Paid advertising is fairly new to Pinterest; they term it “Promoted Pins.” Currently they are trying it out with a small test group of big brands—Gap, General Mills, Ziploc, and Kraft, to name a few.

To put things in perspective, an article in New York Magazine claims that “Pinterest now drives more traffic to publishers than Twitter and Reddit combined.” The demographic, which the article terms as “mostly hyperengaged young women in their prime buying years” are a goldmine for advertisers. Some of the most pinned categories on Pinterest—food and drink, fashion, home décor—also constitute primary categories for advertisers. ( It’s a recipe for success, and right now, completely free to set up a business account.

Like Instagram, Pinterest has also been thought to promote coveting; instead of becoming depressed, however, users simply acquire the product, try the project, or do the workout! Head over to Pinterest’s website to setup your business account, get verified, and tap into the latest in social media advertising. (

Instagram Update in March 2015

Instagram continues to be one of the most popular social media apps for high school and college students. One of the reasons for this is the fact that marketers cannot spam users with links or message them directly. This is much different than Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus and even LinkedIn. The only way marketers can truly use Instagram to market is to try and put a link in a photo and then upload that photo. This is not very effective because they cannot measure the click through rate. Most marketers have accepted they can get better referral traffic from Pinterest, Facebook or another social network.

As long as Instagram keeps clickable links off the social network it will be extremely popular. As soon as links are added it is going to be a haven for SEO “gurus” and people trying to sell stuff online. While that is already on Instagram it is contained because there are so few opportunities to share links with other users. It will be interesting to see how Instagram progresses with this policy.

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