Food, Instagram, and the Nature of Human Perception
by Julia Cohen
WHAT’S THE STORY?
800 million. Before that number is given any sort of significance, just think for one moment about the sheer size of that figure. 800 million is the number of active monthly users on Instagram. With a number like that, it is logical to assume that this application has become deeply entrenched in our daily lives, inevitably influencing the ways we act and behave. The real question, however, is how.
One niche of Instagram use revolves around one of life’s most important necessities: food. At the time of writing, users had used the hashtag “#food” almost three hundred million times, followed closely by “#foodporn” at almost two hundred million. While the aforementioned statistics above are quite staggering, it more important to move past the magnitude of the numbers and consider what they mean.
The work at present does just that. A combination of scholarly literature review and survey data collected from Emory University students allow for an investigation and discussion of these questions surrounding the benefits and drawbacks that Instagram’s staggering presence of food and eating has for its mass of young adult users.
WHAT ARE WE LOOKING AT?
Instagram is a platform that can be used by anyone for (almost) anything. Within the app, users can find niche “communities” for all sorts of content. Within the Instagram “food” niche, promotors of clean eating and healthy living somehow coexist with their “cheat food” counterparts, proponents of excess and indulgence.
While it is obvious that the mass of food content on Instagram has many forms and many sources, the present research examines the implications that this content has for our real-life thought processes and behaviors. The literature review of both scholarly and various online sources provides an important foundation for understanding the development of this social media phenomenon, and the knowledge that healthcare professionals and academics have already uncovered. The empirical research is also a critical component, as it provides up-to-date statistics from a group of young adults, which is necessary for understanding how their perceptions fit within the framework of earlier work, as well as how the general nature of their perceptions have changed since.
Ultimately, a thorough review of scholarly literature, online sources, and the empirical evidence reveals that the mass of food content on Instagram does have observable effects on users’ real-life thought processes and behaviors surrounding food and healthy living, and that there are some interesting trends pertaining to users’ perceptions of the positive and negative nature of these effects.
WHAT WE ALREADY KNOW: LITERATURE REVIEW
In a 2015 study, Mejova et al. highlight the significance of food and dining as a meaningful social and cultural experience—one that today’s social media activity reflects via check-ins, photos, and posts (51). They suggest that this phenomenon points to the recent notion that society’s general obsession with food has developed into a “food fetish” (51).
The 2014 findings of Vaterlaus et al. are also critical for gaining a general understanding of the topic at hand, specifically these questions surrounding the specific positive and negative effects that social media food content has on young adults’ relationships own relationships with food. Notably, the team draws attention to the fact that young adulthood, the age range that is the focus of this research, is often marked by increased independence and transitions, and is thus an especially critical point in development—specifically of lasting health behaviors (151). Vaterlaus et al. propose that social media could be a contributing factor to what they call a person’s “total diet” (a term that describes one’s combined intake of nutritious food and adequate physical activity) and explain that media and technology have been considered a leading factor in what they identify as a recent shift in perceptions, attitudes, and beliefs about nutrition (152). Further, because social media allows users to easily share any information they choose, there is a large possibility that social media has become a primary source of health information—though this is not to say that all the available dietary information is correct (Vaterlaus et al. 153). The team reports: “Pseudo professionals, celebrities, and the population at large now can disseminate information about health behaviors (whether accurate, inaccurate, oversimplified, or exaggerated) virally with social media outlets” (153).
Vaterlaus et al. found important results regarding social media users’ perceptions of the consequences of the heavy use and minimal filtering characteristic of social media and the information available through these platforms. Responses indicated that the majority of participants observed tangible effects of social media on their health behaviors—the effects they reported, however, interestingly fell into both positive and negative categories (153). Participants highlighted positive effects such as increased motivation to exercise (50% of participants), as well as negative effects such as displacement of exercise time, increased distraction during exercise, and dissemination of inaccurate information (154). While these specific positive and negative effects of social media pertain to exercise as a health behavior, as opposed to food, they begin to form a general framework through which one can begin to understand not only that social media can influence how we perceive and behave in real ways, but that it does not do so in the same ways for everyone.
The study’s findings surrounding the connection between social media and food specifically are, however, directly applicable to the current project. Vaterlaus et al. found that 81% of participants recognized a connection between food and media platforms, and identified this social media-food connection in three specific ways (155). 38% of participants reported that social media was linked with increased food choices, 28% of participants perceived social media as a place to share pictures of food with their followers, and 32% of participants explained that they felt social media could be a source of distraction during meals and when faced with choices about food. Interestingly, participants also indicated that there were good opportunities to find healthy recipes on social media, despite their awareness that the majority of recipes they felt were available were for “unhealthy foods,” “sweets,” and “desserts” (155). Significantly, some participants reported that food posts on social media contribute specifically to feelings of actual hunger, eating, or sometimes, contradictorily, restraint (155). One 21-year-old female respondent explained that food content “makes me want to go eat…hungry when I’m not really…[and] makes me eat when I shouldn’t’” (155).
Notably, another 21-year-old participant explained, in a discussion of restraint, that after viewing a food post of chocolate cake, she would think that it looks good, but that “’it’s not like [she’s] going to go buy a chocolate cake because of that’” (155). Additionally, participants explained that during meal times, most people sit on their phones instead of talking to the people they are eating with, which thus potentially leads to a disconnection during meal times and making poor food choices (155). Participants also collectively felt that it was inspirational and motivational to see a post from a person discussing a drastic loss of weight, but perceived people who post routinely about working out or exercise as irritating rather than positive, and that they were posting with the intention that their followers feel shame about their bodies (155).
The combination of the aforementioned responses, along with others from the study, work to reveal and highlight an important idea: that while almost all participants were aware of concrete ways that food on social media affected their thoughts and behaviors, the perceptions of whether the influence was more heavily positive or negative varied by the individual.
A recent article in The Independent written by Rachel Hosie perfectly encapsulates a means by which Instagram content could result in actual shifts in perceptions and behavior. Hosie reports on a series of posts by Instagram health blogger Amanda Meixner, and includes a few by Denver-based Chi Pham, which display side-by-side photographs of meals. With the photos, Meixner is drawing attention to the critical but often misunderstood difference between the appropriate portion of food for an average individual, and what she calls the “Instagram worthy portion”. Instagram, as we know, is a platform focused on aesthetics, and thus its content naturally reflects this—the goal is not necessarily to represent reality, but to make one’s reality look as appealing as possible. The problem, which Meixner and Pham impeccably display, is that making food for the purpose of posting on Instagram, or after seeing it on the app, effects how much people are consuming in real life—the photos of “Instagram worthy” portions that she uses all weigh in at around two times the calories that would be considered a typical serving. The article, and Meixner’s photographic evidence, serves as an example and further confirmation that the representation of food on Instagram is powerful enough to be having tangible effects on our perceptions—what we have come believe is healthy—and our behaviors—that we are eating more because of it.
The work of Mejova et al. and Vaterlaus et al. was completed in 2015, so new, timely empirical evidence was needed in order to uncover patterns and changes in the perceived effects of food and Instagram.
A survey was used to collect data, which was distributed to Emory University students via Facebook and text message. There were 31 respondents in total, 29 of which were female and two of which were male. Respondents answered questions surrounding their use of Instagram, and perception of any and all “food Instagram accounts” (herein after referred to as “FIA’s”), which encompassed all accounts dedicated primarily to food content.
The majority of respondents indicated that food is both a large part of their social life as well as something that they generally think about a lot (71% and 96.8%, respectively). 29 out of 31 respondents were Instagram users, and 84.6% of these, a large majority, reported following at least one FIA. 15.4% of Instagram users followed more than 10 food accounts, while 70% of users were equally divided between following either one to five FIA’s or between six and ten; 15.4% of users reported following zero FIA’s.
When participants were asked about their perceptions of the effects of following FIA’s, important findings came to light. When asked if they felt that the presence of food content in their Instagram feeds has influenced the way that they think about food, 64.3% of users confirmed that they felt it had, while 28.6% perceived that it had not (the other 7.1% were users who did not follow any FIA’s). Respondents were then asked to categorize these perceived effects: 61.1% of participants responded that they felt that following these accounts could have both positive and negative influences. This finding interestingly displays that even three years after the Vaterlaus et al. study—three years deeper into social media’s global takeover—responses are still heavily mixed and varied across the pool of participants, rather than weighted more heavily in one direction. More heavily skewed findings would have been reasonable to hypothesize, given social media’s considerable growth in size and power over these last few years.
When participants were asked to select specific negative effects of FIA’s that they felt applied to them, only one was selected by a majority (66.7%): increased thoughts about or fixation on food. A number of other negative effects were also selected by notable percentages of respondents, though not quite majorities, including an increase in consumption of unhealthy food as a result of seeing pictures of unhealthy food (25%), negative thoughts about body image (37.5%), questioning one’s own lifestyle or eating habits (41.7%), spending more money eating out after seeing pictures of food at restaurants (37.5%), and being less present while eating (25%). Notably, one respondent self-described an additional negative effect as intensified and more frequent cravings, an observation that parallels that of the Vaterlaus et al. respondent who described feeling hungry and wanting to eat when she knew she shouldn’t as a result of seeing food-related social media content.
Many respondents also perceived positive effects of FIA’s. Notable perceptions of specific positive effects included majority identifications of increased thoughts about making healthy food choices (52.6%), being encouraged or inspired to cook more food themselves (63.2%), and being encouraged or inspired to eat less processed foods and a more well-rounded, wholesome diet (52.6%). Other responses cited perceptions of additional positive effects such as gaining an increased awareness of what a healthy lifestyle looks like (47.4%), and being encouraged or inspired to make actual, concrete changes towards a healthier lifestyle (26.3%).
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
While the survey’s empirical evidence was taken from only a small sample, the results are nonetheless important for a discussion of the complex relationship between food, Instagram and its users. Notably, the results of a small survey taken at Emory University display similar trends to those of Vaterlaus et al., who also used a small sample (34 participants) at a Midwestern university. In turning to the research question at present, which sought to discover patterns surrounding the specifically positive or negative nature of respondents’ observations, the data clearly shows that the majority of users not only expressed recognition of both effects, but that the combination of specific effects that respondents experienced also varied from person to person.
What one can extrapolate from these results, especially given their consistency with earlier work, is that respondents’ mixed responses speak to the complexities not only within the world of social media itself, but in the way we each individually experience, interpret, and perceive the world around us. Considering the classic debate nature versus nurture is a good way of understanding this complexity. In essence, the theory revolves around the idea that our behavior is influenced by the combined forces of both genetic makeup and learned characteristics. Learned characteristics result from every element of life, including home life, school and extracurricular environments, and our interpersonal relationships, while genetic inheritance refers to our unchangeable genetic makeup. The theory argues that it is the unique combinations of these two factors that result in the variance in individuals’ behaviors. Discussion of this theory within the context of the present research is helpful for two reasons. First, it pushes us to appreciate the complexity of the human experience and provoke thoughts about the various ways that people are affected by their consumption of social media content mentally and behaviorally. Second, it points to an important area of future research, which should examine why certain people might perceive similar content so differently.
Ultimately, though we cannot say conclusively whether the effects of food content on Instagram on users is all good or all bad, we can unequivocally say that its presence has tangible effects. For some people, these effects could be detrimental to their lifestyle habits or self-esteem, while for others they could change their perceptions of exercise and healthy eating—and their lives—for the better. This conclusion underscores the importance of being conscious and active users of social media, and also remind us that everything we post online affects each viewer differently. While it is clear that no social media experience of any given user is the same as another’s, our high volume of use does have real-life implications, which must not be overlooked or minimized.
Mejova, Yelena, et al. “# foodporn: Obesity patterns in culinary interactions.” Proceedings of the 5th International Conference on Digital Health 2015. ACM, 2015.
Vaterlaus, J. Mitchell, et al. “# Gettinghealthy: The perceived influence of social media on young adult health behaviors.” Computers in Human Behavior 45 (2015): 151-157.