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The hidden positive externalities of Instagram


Ronald Poon

By

May 9th, 2020


Instagram and social media often get a bad rap. Could they be more beneficial than we think? Ronald Poon investigates.


It’s often heralded as the worst thing for teenage mental health and wellbeing, with links to higher levels of anxiety, depression, bullying and FOMO (‘fear of missing out’). In a recent survey of five social networking sites, Instagram was considered the very worst of the lot.[i] It’s easy to see why.

You’re at home, late at night, streaming lectures at 1.5x speed, whilst mindlessly scrolling through Instagram in your PJ’s. Suddenly, you see a story of that girl you talked to once from 1st-year Micro, partying it up with all her ‘frands’, and living her best life in Santorini. A feeling of ‘FOMO’ rushes over you, as you sit there on your bed, all alone, learning about supply and demand for the 6th time in your life, as you start to question… ‘What the hell am I doing with my life?’

It’s easy to jump on the “social media is bad” bandwagon, and make wide-sweeping statements like: ‘Social media makes people unhappy, it makes people depressed, lowers self-esteem and makes people super unproductive”. Whilst some of this may be true, it’s important to note that (like all things in life), it’s not all bad. Social media has actually done a lot of good – most notably, fuelling recent consumer trends towards ‘the experience economy’.

Welcome to the age of ‘experiences’… where the ‘American Dream’ is no longer to buy a fancy car or house, but to travel the world, and eat an Instagram-worthy brunch at an unnecessarily expensive cafe. In a recent study conducted by Eventbrite, more than 3 in 4 millennials (78%) chose to spend money on a ‘desirable experience’ as opposed to a ‘desirable thing’. More than 80% participated in a live experience (think party, concert, sports match etc.) over the past year . To top it all off, nearly 80% of them said that some of their ‘best memories’ came from going to one of these live events. 69% believed they felt more connected to other people, the community, and the world, as a result.[ii]

So how is spending all the money I don’t have on a plane ticket, festival or sports match good for the economy? Well, I’m glad you asked.

Firstly, research has consistently shown that spending money on ‘experiences’ over ‘things’, leads to greater long-term happiness.[iii] It may seem counter-intuitive at first, but spending money on one-off experiences (like a nice holiday or fancy dinner date), is a much better investment to your long-term happiness, compared to that jacket you were eyeing up last week, or latest iPhone upgrade.

In economic terms, the ‘diminishing marginal utility’ of a sweet memory, is much slower than that of a new laptop or branded sweater.

Secondly, dematerialisation leads to a reduction in greenhouse gases and causes people to own ‘less stuff’. With less clothes, comes fewer shopping malls, and (hopefully) more green parks and outdoor play areas (which can only be good for the environment).

The third, and final, hidden positive externality, is that Instagram reduces information asymmetry – empowering consumers and producers to make better choices. You can go to a restaurant based off a good friend’s recommendation, and avoid overly touristic travel destinations based off how many people have #’d it in the last hour.

Maybe Instagram isn’t so bad after all. Maybe it’s a good thing we live in an era that celebrates ‘experiences’ over ‘things’.

But that ‘experience’ doesn’t have to have a filter on it. It could be as simple as the one you’re living in right now – like reading a super cheesy ending to this article.


Photo by lalo Hernandez on Unsplash

[i] Instagram ranked worst for young people’s mental health. Royal Society for Public Health. 2017. [cited 16 April 2020] Available from: https://www.rsph.org.uk/about- us/news/instagram-ranked-worst-for-young- people-s-mental-health.html.

[ii] Millennials – Fuelling the Experience Economy. Eventbrite. 2014. [cited 16 April 2020]. Available from: http://eventbrite- s3.s3.amazonaws.com/marketing/Millennials_Rese arch/Gen_PR_Final.pdf

[iii] The Science Of Why You Should Spend Your Money On Experiences, Not Things. Fast Company. 2015. [cited 16 April 2020]. Available online.

The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ESSA Committee or the Society's sponsors. Use of any content from this article should clearly attribute the work to the author and not to ESSA or its sponsors.

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