A new study investigates the impact of uploading images to the Internet.
According to Facebook's figures, in March 2018, they had 1.45 billion users who were active on a daily basis. That's around 1 in 5 people.
Think about that for just a second — 1 in every 5 people on this green and blue sphere log in to the same website each and every day.
Incredible. So what do we do when we're there? We look at photos that people have posted. We might even post up some of our own now and again.
From images of that unplanned night in Tijuana to the shagpile of your new carpet, anything and everything is snapped and uploaded.
Only a few years ago, cell phones with cameras didn't exist, and uploading a photo to the Internet would take about half an hour. Because this relatively new habit of ours has exploded at such a quick rate, it has piqued the interest of many psychologists.
Questioning the impact of uploads
Some people make an effort to take and share one photo every single day. For instance, Instagram has over 1.5 million photos tagged as #356. Documenting a moment from every day of your life has become a habit and, for some, a passion. But is it a healthy pastime?
Because uploading photos to social media sites is so ubiquitous, it might be having an impact on our global well-being — but is it positive or negative?
Researchers from Lancaster University and the University of Sheffield, both in the United Kingdom, set out to answer these questions. Co-authored by Drs. Liz Brewster and Andrew Cox, their paper was recently published in the journal Health.
So what did they find? Spoiler alert: it's complicated.
The researchers focused on one photo-a-day website. Over a 2-month period, they followed eight users. They collated information about the subject matter of uploaded photos, text added to the pictures, and how the users interacted.
Overall, taking a photo and firing it onto the Internet seemed to improve well-being via three main routes: self-care, community interaction, and the potential for reminiscence.
To explain further, we'll take a look at some quotes from the users.
What the users say
Some people enjoyed the way in which a photo opportunity provides an enforced pause. They say, "My job was a very highly stressful role... There were some days when I'd almost not stopped to breathe; you know what I mean?"
"And," they add, "just the thought: 'oh wait a moment, no, I'll stop and take a photograph of this insect sitting on my computer or something.' Just taking a moment is very salutary I think."
Other folk found that the habit gave them a raison d'être and a sense of achievement:
"It encourages me out of the house sometimes when I could just sit on my backside with a cup of tea. I'll think maybe I'll take a walk down on to the seafront and, before I know it, I'm 2 miles along the coast."
One participant, who was recently retired, found the one-a-day project to be a nice replacement for the camaraderie in a work setting, saying, "There's the banter in the workshop or the office or the place where you work."
"And," they continue, "perhaps [photo-a-day] offers that... Because I'm having conversations with people that I would perhaps have had in the workplace."
Others still found that the photos helped them to look fondly on past times: "[If] I'm ever feeling down or something, it's nice to be able to scroll back and see good memories."
"You know, the photos I've taken will have a positive memory attached to it, even if it's something as simple as 'I had a really lovely half an hour for lunch sitting outside and was feeling really relaxed.'"
The researchers say that taking and sharing a daily photo is "an active process of meaning-making, in which a new conceptualization of well-being emerges."
It is worth noting, however, that the positive findings should be taken with a smidgen of salt. Firstly, only eight participants were involved in the study, all of which had agreed to have their online behavior "shadowed" throughout the study.
We all know that when we are being watched, it can change our behavior, how we feel about our behavior, and it can encourage us to think more deeply about what we are doing and why.
The team acknowledge this. In fact, the authors write that their results are "only representative of the experiences of participants who already identified with the idea that photo-a-day did have an impact on their well-being."
Also, the researchers focused on users from just one photo-a-day site, when many other sites have users doing a similar thing. Facebook and Instagram are two popular alternatives, of course.
It is also possible that the community that they observed fostered a positive atmosphere; on other social media websites, spaces can get a little more hostile. In Facebook, the general ethos of a comment stream might largely depend on the friends you keep.
As an example, if you are a sensitive 15-year-old who has a bunch of thoughtless teenagers on your friends list, posting a photo of yourself might be an entirely negative experience depending on who decides to grace the comments section.
As the researchers say, this is complicated. Even in the limited sample used for this study, they refer to the photo-a-day experience as "complex" and "interlinked." Anything that involves billions of humans, each with their own motivations, hang-ups, and stories to tell, is likely to be rather tricky to unpick.
So, to answer the question in the title: no, taking pictures might not keep you healthy. However, in a supportive forum, it may well increase your sense of well-being. And, as recent research has demonstrated, if you feel healthier, you might well become healthier.