Manitoba

Instagram obsessed: Can we vacation without posting every moment?

Ah! Summer, that time of the year when people head out on vacation to escape the grind and find some seclusion — as long as it comes with Wi-Fi​​​​​​​.

When we live through social media, we start to miss what's actually happening around us, psychologist says

We forget the pictures people post are only the very best of what actually happened, says clinical psychologist Jo Ann Unger. In doing so, we get caught up in comparing the moments to our own lives and end up feeling inferior. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

Ah! Summer, that time of the year when people head out on vacation to escape the grind and find some seclusion — as long as it comes with Wi-Fi.

These days it seems that getting away from it all also means making sure everyone else knows exactly what you're doing, eating, wearing and which sandy beach your toes are digging into.

Is it even possible anymore to enjoy a holiday without Instagramming every moment?

"When it comes to even things like vacation photos, there's a kind of keeping-up-with-the-Joneses sort of mentality but amplified to the nth degree [because of social media platforms]," said Matthew Flisfeder, associate professor of rhetoric and communications at the University of Winnipeg.

"We're in these online communities, we have our friends online, and we see the types of things that they're posting. There's a kind of a herd mentality that can develop from that — 'Well, I don't want to be left out.'"

Even on vacation it's hard to take a break from social media, because we've become used to that reward feeling of people liking our photographs, says Unger. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

It's all by design, Flisfeder said — Facebook and the Facebook-owned Instagram use algorithms to analyze our activity and learn what incentives will encourage us to share more and spend more time on the platforms.

One of the ways the algorithms are used to keep us online is by creating virtual communities through recommending friends based on the interests users share.

The more connected we are through social media, the more we feel we need to contribute and get reassurance online, Flisfeder said.

Social media platforms, for some, reproduce the sense of community people are lacking in their daily lives, says University of Winnipeg professor Matthew Flisfeder. (Naniece Ibrahim/Submitted by Matthew Flisfeder)

"We're constantly working, working, working, working to make ends meet, and the folding-in of work and leisure time has created a lot of anxiety. We can feel we don't have that full community [in our daily lives] and social media might be a place where we turn to develop a sense of that," he said.

"Part of the sharing is one of the ways that we are able to get a sense of ourselves, a sense of our identities."

Social media companies use that need to feel connected to get information about us, and then sell the information to third-party advertisers trying to get our attention, Flisfeder said.

"The platform has an incentive to try to get us to participate as much as possible," he said. "Just as we are curating our own identities … the platform is also curating … us."

More than 50 billion photos have been uploaded to Instagram since it launched in 2010. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

And that's created a new way of making money personified by the rise of social media influencers — the cult of micro-celebrity, Flisfeder calls it.

Exponential growth

An influencer is someone who builds a personal brand on social media and makes a living from it.

A large number of followers or subscribers brings attention from companies that want to share the spotlight. Those companies sponsor influencers, sending them free gifts, clothes and vacations in exchange for publicity on influencers' social media channels.

The number of monthly Instagram users shows why companies want a piece of the action — worldwide, it has soared from 90 million in 2013 to more than one billion now, according to Stastica, a market and consumer data provider. Approximately 11 million of those users are in Canada.

More than 50 billion photos have been uploaded to the platform since it launched in 2010.

That translates into opportunities for places like Travel Manitoba, which augments its reach by having its 116,000 followers help promote the province.

"The amount of growth [in Instagram followers] we've seen in the past year has exponentially been greater than the years prior to it," said Nisha Tuli, Travel Manitoba's senior content marketing manager.

Travel Manitoba encourages Instagrammers to tag photos with #exploremb. It takes some of the best and publishes them in an annual collection. (Travel Manitoba)

Travel Manitoba, a Crown corporation that collaborates with tourism businesses, communities, marketing organizations and governments to advertise the province as a destination, encourages Instagrammers to tag photos with #exploremb.

"It is our fastest-growing social media channel from all the ones that we do. We get a lot of great content through Instagram because there are so many people sharing photos on there," Tuli said. 

"I think we've created a real community with the people."

There are many good reasons to post, said Tuli, an Instagrammer herself.

"It's fun to share, isn't it? It's fun to tell people what we're doing and I like to tell them so that they'll say, 'Hey, what it was that? I want to go do it,'" she said.

It's fun to share, isn't it? It's fun to tell people what we're doing and I like to tell them so that they'll say, 'Hey, what it was that? I want to go do it.'- Nisha Tuli, Travel Manitoba

"And I want my parents who live in Alberta to see what we're doing. They want to see pics of their grandkids."

The number of people tagging Travel Manitoba in their Instagram posts shows there's more than narcissim at play, she said.

"It has demonstrated to us there's a lot of young people who are excited about living here and excited about sharing the places they live. It's about more than just sort of showing off where you've been — there's a sense of pride, too."

Slippery slope

Dr. Jo Ann Unger, a clinical psychologist and president of the Manitoba Psychological Society, said Instagram can be useful for those who want to stay connected with friends and family who live far away, "but it can be a slippery slope."

"We can become pulled into that being our main way of being connected," she said.

When people chat on the phone or go for a coffee, they control the pace of the information they share, but the social media world is based on immediacy and constancy that creates a fear of missing out, Unger said.

"If we miss a day or two, we're gonna feel out of the loop, so we stay connected and we contribute to that to feel part of the connection," she said.

"Then we start to miss what's actually happening around us."

Rose Dominguez in Manila, Philippines. 'I love sharing my experiences,' she says. (@rose.a.d/Instagram)

The fear of missing out is proven to be associated with depression, which in turn prompts people to use social media even more to get a shot of dopamine — that feel-good chemical released by the brain, creating the jolt of elation when someone likes a post.

"It's a positive reinforcement and it boosts our mood for that little period of time," Unger said.

"Even on vacation, it's hard to take a break [from social media] because we've become used to that feeling."

We've become dependant on other people's approval to measure the value of our experience, rather than just enjoying the experience on our own, Unger said; we constantly evaluate what we're doing by comparing it to others' social media posts.

"We're so preoccupied with those types of comparisons and things while we're in the experience that we're actually missing the experience."

And while it's a natural impulse to compare oneself when passing others, looking at what someone's driving or wearing, on social media, it never ends.

Unger has dealt with people comparing their lives to those of Hollywood celebrities on Instagram and feeling like they're falling short.

And we forget the pictures people are posting are only the very best of what actually happened, she said.

"We end up comparing our actual real lived experience to this very filtered experience of other people online."

Rose Dominguez in San Francisco. Stopping for photos doesn't take her out of travel experiences, she says. (@rose.a.d/Instagram)

Winnipegger Rose Dominguez, who travels and posts extensively, said she never misses the experience. Rather, she's so present to it that she sees the moments to capture.

"I don't go out of my way to get the pictures. It's not as invasive [to your time] as people think it is," she said. "It's minimal compared to the overall part of my trip. I maybe take five minutes out of a two-hour hike."

Dominguez, who was on a trip in British Columbia when reached by CBC, has posted about her travel to Miami, Havana, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Manila, Bali and many other locations, including places around Manitoba.

We're so preoccupied with comparing our experiences with those of others on Instagram that we forget to live them, says Jo Ann Unger. (Submitted by Jo Ann Unger)

"I love sharing my experiences, when I'm up north in Churchill or with family in Manila," she said. "It's about showing those hidden gems that you never really see until you get to any particular city, sharing a moment that not everyone in my life can be a part of.

"I think that's worthwhile."

Fatal photos

But trying to keep up, or push the pace, can become dangerous.

Three people who built a massive social media following documenting their travels died in July 2018 at Shannon Falls near Squamish, B.C.

Witnesses reported seeing Megan Scraper slip and fall from the rocks at the top of the falls, into the strong current. Two men with her, Alexey Lyakh and Ryker Gamble, jumped in the water to try to save her.

Three months later, a couple fell to their deaths from a popular overlook at Yosemite National Park in the western U.S. while apparently taking a selfie.

Vishnu Viswanath, 29, and Meenakshi Moorthy, 30, posted extensively about their adventures on Instagram, describing themselves as a "NYC based gypsy couple consumed by wanderlust.

"We wander around the world we absolutely love sharing our adventures with this community," they wrote in a 2017 Instagram post.

CBC reporter Darren Bernhardt and family in Yellowknife. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

According to a 2018 study published by the Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care, there were 259 selfie-related deaths between October 2011 and November 2017.

In the first four years, the number of deaths was 18. In the last three years, there were 241 deaths, making it an emerging problem, the study says.

"It is rewarding for individuals seeing the number of likes and positive comments and this further influences them to post unique pictures which may also involve indulging in risky behaviour to click selfies," it states.

Try less to impress

While most people don't endanger themselves for a good post, many end up paying for experiences and things they can't afford in an attempt to keep up, the University of Winnipeg's Flisfeder said.

"It almost it ends up reinforcing the types of inequality that we see throughout the society. Social media and the way we're encouraged to act on it can be a representation of the way in which our culture sees our everyday activity — as one that is not an equal playing field or an equal relationship between individuals but a competitive relationship between individuals."

The key to avoiding the trap of social media is to limit the time you spend on it, Unger says, and to think about what your values are and find happiness there. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

Flisfeder's advice is to get out of the race. Think less about trying to impress.

"It's easier said than done but I think one of the things people have to learn is … that we are the ones who are granting permission to enjoy, not those other people out there," he said.

Try not to judge yourself harshly, Unger said.

"This is something we're all dealing with together as a culture and have to figure out how to do it well," she said.

The keys are limiting the time you spend on social media, and thinking about what your values are and finding happiness there.

"Pay attention to the moment you're experiencing — the people you're with — whether it's good or bad," Unger said.

"This is our life. When we're so preoccupied about other people's lives, we're missing our own."

About the Author

Darren Bernhardt

Reporter/Editor

Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, first at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories and features. Story idea? Email: darren.bernhardt@cbc.ca

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