We often hear about how social media is linked to loneliness.
Only this week, American psychologists warned that many sites designed to bring people together are actually making them feel more alone.
But we hear less about how social networks can connect people suffering from depression and insecurities, and help them find support.
The team, which was intrigued by the fact that the app permits pseudonyms, analysed nearly 800 posts tagged with #depression from a pool of 90,000.
“[Normally] physical or mental health and body image concerns are stigmatized, rarely disclosed and frequently elicit negative responses when shared with others,” the study’s authors write.
“We found that [...] disclosures, in addition to deep and detailed stories of one’s difficult experiences, attract positive social support on Instagram.”
They also found that eating disorder-related disclosures prompted mostly constructive support and reinforced positive self-image.
“Our findings complicate the concerns and the popular narrative that such online disclosures might encourage eating disorders or are inherently problematic,” said Drexel University’s Nazanin Andalibi, co-author of the study, which was presented at a conference in February.
The researchers haven’t ruled out the possibility that the platform is used by pro-eating disorder or pro-self harming communities and said more research was needed.
In another finding, researchers said posting pictures on Instagram was sometimes an easier way for people to express themselves. Psychologists often use imagery to help patients communicate their feelings and experiences.
In Autumn last year, Instagram revealed a suicide prevention tool designed to alert human operators of an emergency flagged by users, providing a channel for the operator to talk to the user in trouble, or their friends.
The researchers suggested this might be a “nod of acknowledgement to that this community exists” and lauded it as a step in the right direction.
But Andalibi said there’s more work to do: “Rather than diverting people away from these platforms, or making design decisions that would further stigmatize sensitive disclosures, they should work to foster these communities of support that are arising organically on their platform.”
While the study raises interesting questions, the researchers cautioned that they don’t yet know how the interactions affect users, which could represent a new avenue for further research.