Instagram's removal of the ‘likes’ count and its effect on people

In the popular Netflix documentary Social Dilemma, children develop unhealthy obsessions with social media apps

Published: 05th September 2021 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 04th September 2021 01:41 PM   |  A+A-

likes, instagram, like button

For representational purposes

Earlier this year, Naina Chawla* (name changed) was stuck in a toxic relationship, replete with immense jealousy and feelings of insecurity about her appearance and intelligence, leading to low self-worth. The paramour in her case was none other than the social media app Instagram. When the ‘gram’, as it is colloquially known, gave this budding content creator the option to hide likes and views from her posts, she felt liberated. “Hiding that silly number dictated by Instagram gave me a sense of control,” she says.

Though Singh is exuberant, the efficacy of this move is being debated by content creators and regular users alike. In the popular Netflix documentary Social Dilemma, children develop unhealthy obsessions with social media apps, while their parents base major life decisions on what the ‘algorithm’ tells them. This dystopian scenario reflects the growing belief among health professionals that social media negatively affects users in many ways. 

In 2017, the UK’s Royal Society for Public Health published a report declaring Instagram the worst social media app for young people’s mental health, pushing the app’s team to test-drive the option of ‘hiding likes and views’ on posts and videos in several countries. Two years into the experiment, they found that hidden likes had an equal amount of advocates and detractors. Hence, it has now become optional for people to hide likes on their own posts, as well as those of others on their feed.

A blog post shared by the team claims their experiment showed that hidden likes were ‘beneficial for some, and annoying to others’, particularly as some people determine what’s trending or popular based on like counts. This was the reason for making it optional. The change may seem lacklustre in impact, but has been welcomed by certain influencers.

Roma Gupta Sinha, a lifestyle content creator with 40k followers, appreciates that it lets her content speak for itself. “Hidden likes ensure that the mantra ‘content is king’ means something. Now, your content pulls the audience, as they are no longer affected by how many likes the post receives,” she explains.

For others in this professional space, the move made little difference. Gurpreet Singh Tikku has been creating food-related content since 2016, organically amassing over 25k followers in that time. He refers to hidden likes as a mere ‘white-wash’. “The number of followers and comments are also measurable units of engagement. Hiding likes doesn’t really help, though it may save money for people who had been buying likes!” he laughs.

Regular users of the app remain mostly unaffected. Mallika Singh, a Delhiite settled in Dublin, first experienced hidden likes two years ago as Ireland was one of the few countries to implement the change early on. She says, “When I returned to Delhi for vacations, I enjoyed seeing the number of likes on my posts. It wasn’t that a lesser number negatively affected me, but there was an element of positive reinforcement when I received a large number of likes!” Over the years, the popularity of Instagram has waned with the success of other platforms. Further, Oxford University’s recently published 30-year study showed ‘little evidence’ of a connection between social media usage and teenage mental health issues, turning long-held beliefs on their head. 

Hidden likes are ultimately what you make of them—a tool to curb anxiety or an act of no consequence. Hence, making them optional is a well-thought move by Instagram. Chawla sums it best, “I know that the number of likes my posts receive have nothing to do with how many people liked that content. It’s about Instagram’s algorithm—what time I post, how many people were using the app then, how many glimpsed my post but were too lazy to double tap etc. This number can easily be tampered with ‘like for like’ activities! Now whoever taps on my post, genuinely appreciates my content, and that is most important to me.”


Gurpreet Singh Tikku 
@mistertikku, Delhi, 28k followers: It makes no difference as engagement level can be seen through other metrics too.

Vidhya Thakkar 
@reader_viddh, Mumbai,  19k followers: Hidden likes make no difference when it comes to getting sponsorships. All engagement metrics need to be highlighted to them, making this move redundant.

Roma Gupta Sinha 
@trulyyrsroma, Delhi,  40k followers: Likes it because content is allowed to speak for itself and audience is not swayed by how many likes it received.

Naina Singh* (name changed), Bengaluru, 16k followers: Likes it because now the algorithm doesn’t dictate the content, and she can post what she likes without worrying about having to participate in ‘mutual liking groups’ to increase the number of likes.


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