It’s hard to remember a time before Instagram, but remarkably the photo-sharing app has been around for less than 10 years. In that time, it has amassed more than 700 million monthly active users (with 400 million posting photos—and videos, a feature added in 2013—daily). The social network has changed a lot about the way we view the world, and it is safe to say it has changed the way we explore it, too.
It’s not just individuals who are using the platform as a way to connect with the environment. In 2015, REI started a Black Friday campaign urging its customers to spend the day outdoors and to #optoutside. What started off as a one-day pledge has become a year-round tradition; a search of the hashtag on Instagram pulls up more than 4 million posts. These images showcase the ever-increasing desire to explore the scenery and terrain that America’s parks and wilderness have to offer.
Support for our national parks was felt in full effect earlier this year when the U.S. government announced it was slashing the budget of the National Parks Service. Instagram is just one platform that citizens are using to shed light on important issues—such as the need to preserve our public lands—and to inspire others to keep celebrating and caring for our world.
In addition to the call to head outdoors and stay active, Instagram has proven to be incredibly successful at helping others connect in an emotional way. Rachele Schulist (@racheleschulist), a recent graduate of and former distance runner for Michigan State University, reached thousands by doing just that in December 2016, when she shared a side-by-side photo of herself running at the NCAA Championships in both 2014 and 2016. What people saw were two photos of a healthy, successful runner, and what Schulist admitted was that in 2014 she was actually fighting a physical and mental battle surrounding her weight, trapped in the cycle of overtraining and undereating. Her desire to stay thin had taken over because she believed that success in the sport was directly tied to her weight.
The post racked up more than 4,500 likes and 300 comments from people who admired her unfiltered look at such a serious issue in the sport. Schulist said that though she initially was scared to share the personal post, she knew Instagram was the most direct way to share her message.
“Today social media is such a huge part of our everyday life; that can be a good thing but also sometimes a bad thing,” she says. “In a world where we are bombarded by images of what society deems ‘acceptable’ or ‘pretty,’ it is refreshing to have people who celebrate their imperfections and are confident.”
In a recent study done in the UK by the Royal Society of Public Health and Young Health Movement, Instagram was found to be the most harmful form of social media for the mental health of young adults. For all the good of the platform, there is a darker side, found when feeds are curated to showcase an unreal standard of what the perfect life looks like. This doesn’t mean it is inherently bad, however, and it just requires users to be more conscious of the filters and techniques available to distort reality in these images.
“Instagram can definitely have a healthy influence on people, but it comes down to having a realistic perspective on the platform. You have to understand that you are getting a carefully curated look into someone’s life,” explains Robert Duff, Ph.D., author of the Hardcore Self Help series. “When you recognize that and have some self-awareness about the type of content that you should be seeing at the moment, you can use that to your advantage. If you are trying to get out of the house and hike more because you are motivated to increase your overall wellness, looking at awesome hiking and nature photos can give you that boost of inspiration that you need to get your butt out the door.”
The benefits of connecting with fellow outdoor enthusiasts via the platform are twofold: Not only do you make a connection with someone who shares your interests, but you also have yet another external source of motivation to get out and explore. In addition, should you decide you want to push yourself on a through-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, for example, you have already created a community where you can get information, view past excursions and find safety tips all by searching a hashtag.
While staying mindful as you view images, doing the same while posting images can help combat the heavily filtered and curated effects of some posts. While you’re at it, the ability to encourage others to join you outdoors is just a click away.
Not Just For The Insta
Allison Macsas (@allison_wanders), professional runner for Skechers and founder of running adventure company Rogue Expeditions (@rogueexpeditions), uses Instagram to document running trips that she and fellow runners take around the world. She shares how to stay in the moment when running and exploring with a camera.
“I definitely think that there is a fine line between documenting a beautiful moment or place and completely missing the experience of that moment or place, but it’s certainly possible to fully appreciate something with a camera in tow,” she explains. “The key is focus on quality, not quantity; I don’t pull the camera out unless the composition and the lighting are right for a good photo, and this requires an awareness of place. I am very conscious of staying present and experiencing my runs and adventures through all of my senses—not just through a viewfinder.”
Her other key takeaway? Don’t do something just for the Insta. Keep it real and don’t use the platform as a way to outdo others.
“Not everyone has business running through a snowfield at 14,000 feet, and you’re probably not actually doing yoga on the edge of that cliff,” she urges. “If you must take a selfie in the middle of the trail, make sure no one else is coming. Don’t tread off-trail in a sensitive area just for a photo. All of this comes with a basic awareness of where you are and basic courtesy.”
In addition to remembering the etiquette of snapping photos, remember to stay safe as well. As of this writing, there have been 21 deaths related to selfies, so avoid going off-trail or getting too close to wild animals in the name of the “perfect” snap.