How to Use Instagram in a Healthy Way, According to Sara Tasker of Me & Orla - Verily
Why we need beauty in the world, how to balance that with a dose of reality, and so much more.

As soon as you come across Sara Tasker’s Instagram feed, you realize you’ve stumbled upon something rather special. Capturing everyday moments of beauty in a way that helps you to see your own life with fresh eyes, she’s managed to build a supportive and warm Instagram community—170,000 strong—as well as creating several hugely popular Instagram photography courses and a weekly podcast called Hashtag Authentic. Given that authenticity is at the heart of all the magic she works online, the name couldn’t be more apt. Tasker's posts regularly spark lively and affirming conversations about anything and everything from conquering self-doubt to the highs and lows of parenthood, and many of her followers (myself included) have formed genuine friendships with each other.

Last month the BBC reported that "social media may be fueling a mental health crisis" in young people, and that despite their efforts to champion mental health, Instagram is the worst social media platform based on issues such as “anxiety, depression, loneliness, bullying and body image.” But Tasker is proof that such issues don't have to be the rule. I got in touch with her to ask how she’s created such an uplifting online community in contrast to the negative picture painted by the report.

(Editor’s Note: This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)

Sophie Caldecott: You seem to have a knack for attracting a really lovely crowd of people to everything you do online—what’s your secret?

Sara Tasker: Instagram is the friendliest place I’ve come across online. I feel like the community that I’ve managed to build around me happened because I’ve been as open and authentic as I can be, which has meant that other people who are the same—who struggle with the same things—recognize that and know that it’s safe for them to be there. Even since starting my podcast [early this year] I’ve noticed those connections have become a lot stronger, and the people it’s not right for have dropped off; it refines all the time, and it just gets better and better at just being those right people.

SC: It sounds like being authentically yourself and putting quite a lot of yourself out there helps you to find that authentic community and those “right people” quite naturally.

ST: Yeah, and it’s about putting out the bad as well as the good, I think; it’s being able to talk about when you’ve messed up or when you’re really bored of parenting, or the thoughts that you’re having at 3 a.m., or whatever that is, because it’s those moments of vulnerability that people recognize in themselves, more than the positivity. If you just share how brilliant your life is all the time, most of us don’t really relate to that, because even if our lives are brilliant, it never feels that way from the inside. If you’re able to share the whole picture, then people can see that they’re the same as you and then a friendship can be struck up.

SC: What did you make of the BBC report?

ST: I think it’s a little bit unfair; it didn’t seem that thorough of a study, and also it didn’t separate out things like how many people felt they spent too long on the app versus the actual content they were consuming affecting their mental health. Instagram is one of the easiest apps to get sucked into and spend way longer than you intended—you open it to just check one picture and before you know it an hour has disappeared. And that can absolutely have an impact on your mental health because you’re not doing all the other things you enjoy; you’re spending too long sitting in one space staring at a screen. There are chemical and practical reasons why that’s going to make you feel worse, but they're less about Instagram and more about your relationship with technology.

SC: So you’re saying it’s more about how you use it than the platform itself?

ST: I think so. We can’t define the platforms by the handful of users who use it stupidly, because many people on Instagram or Twitter or anywhere else are using it perfectly nicely, responsibly and positively. There is a responsibility on everyone to be mindful of who they follow. It’s easy when you’re young to get sucked into creating a really toxic feed for yourself.

SC: I know you also love Twitter. How would you compare the community on Twitter to the one on Instagram?

ST: There’s a definite difference. It is a lot about how you use it, and I have built myself a very nice Twitter bubble that feels an awful lot like my Instagram bubble, and in some respects is more supportive, and in other respects is a little bit more fragile. You know that on Twitter the wolves are at the door all the time, and they’re only a hashtag or a tweet away from finding you. I’ve literally had none of that on Instagram, ever. I’ve never had anyone trolling me, never had anyone being outright aggressive toward me. Even when people have occasionally disagreed with something I’ve posted it’s been really mild and relatively friendly, whereas on Twitter it’s a bit like the gloves are off. I can see why people find it intimidating. You lose control of communication on Twitter at quite an early stage. Something about the way the Instagram platform works is kind of a more cozy, supportive, and nurturing environment.

SC: Can you explain your concept of “webtroverts” and why they are thriving on Instagram?

ST: My idea of a webtrovert—which I thought I’d totally invented and then when I Googled it, it kind of existed but nobody had written anything good about it, so I’m still claiming it—is that there’s something in between introverts and extroverts, where you need to socialize with other people and you can fill up from that, but only if it’s done while you’re technically alone. So you’re at home on your computer talking to those people, so you have the physical presence of being alone but you have the social interaction of speaking to someone (or lots of people) digitally. And lots of people identify with the term webtrovert—I posted about it on my blog and got such a response from people who feel exactly the same. It’s really hard to explain because you say you want to be on your own but that’s not really what you mean, because you want to go and talk to other people.

I think it’s especially pertinent for women, partly because I just think women have got a lot more pressures on them in terms of being seen, and in terms of social interaction; we’re way more self-conscious about how we look, and how we come across, and whether we’re standing right, whether we’re saying the right things. A lot of that pressure is removed when you do it online, because you don’t have to put makeup on, and you can have a lovely profile picture there of you looking your best and that is the face you present to the world with no effort. Also you get to think about what you want to say a little bit more first. I just think there’s a comfort to be found in that for people who maybe are over-thinkers in the real world.

SC: If you’re so in control of the face you present to the world, though, how do you go about being authentic online?

ST: I get that accusation from time to time obviously: people will say “It’s not your real life, it can’t be your real life.” But the thing is I always talk about how my grandmother used to shine her front doorstep and shine her letterbox with special brass-cleaning stuff to make everybody think her house was beautifully immaculate inside. Whether or not it was or wasn’t was not the point, she wanted the people walking past her front door to think the best of her. I don’t think sharing your best Instagram face is really all that different; I think it’s the same as when you go into work and you tell your colleagues the good bits about your weekend and don’t mention the screaming argument you had with your husband. We’ve always done that and always will do that. 

SC: Do you have any tips for using Instagram (and other social platforms) in a way that is good for your mental health?

ST: It’s good to take a step back from time to time and think about how you can audit your social media and unfollow anything that doesn’t make you feel good. But also, make use of the tools that Instagram provides; you can block people, but you can also go into your settings menu and ban certain words from your comments, so any comments posted with those words just disappear. It’s really easy when you’re in the moment to get sucked into a dialogue you didn’t want to be a part of, so you want to get into the mindset of taking a step back periodically and just looking at how you’re using it, to keep perspective.

The other thing that I always tell people to do is to familiarize themselves with the body and face editing apps, because once you see what they do you can spot that in anybody’s pictures, and then all of a sudden you realize why everybody looks like a size 0 with perfect makeup. I’ve downloaded and played with these apps, because it’s fascinating. Now that I’ve tried it, I can spot that type of editing a mile off on anyone’s pictures.

I feel like we and the generation after us have to learn this type of media literacy; we need to be able to read pictures way more deeply than what we see on the surface, and understand what’s going on there, and understand the motivations behind it, if we’re going to be able to stay sane.

SC: What kinds of things do we need to be aware of as users of Instagram?

ST: There are now services springing up where you pay to get your Instagram pictures professionally Photoshopped. I think it’s scary that we’ve gotten to that point where every day people are having to Photoshop their lives so heavily. What's bad is the pressure for perfection. I think the solution is not to tell people they can’t do it, but more if we all got really good at reading it and seeing it for what it was it would stop working because we’d be like “Okay, can I see the real picture now?”

The thing is, we need beauty in the world; if we all started posting mundane pictures of the contents of our bins [trash cans] Instagram would die out tomorrow, nobody would ever go on it—we need the beauty. But it’s about balancing that with a dose of reality when we can, and like anything else just being responsible and thinking about the broader message we’re sending out and what we’re taking in.

To kick-start a more uplifting social media feed, follow Sara on Instagram @me_and_orla, on Twitter here, and subscribe to her lovely weekly podcast here.

Photo Credit: Sara Tasker