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Instagram: The Most Polluting Social Media Platform

Updated: Jun 14, 2023

Instagram is complicit in the planet's destruction, from its polluting technology to encouraging overconsumption in users.

Artwork by Tanishk Katalkar

By the time you find your way to this article, you’ve probably scrolled through Instagram, answered a few emails, and maybe watched a YouTube video. In the last few years, our dependence on social media as a tool to remain connected, especially during the pandemic, has increased exponentially. The increasing use of social media, unexpectedly enough, is also contributing to the climate crisis.


According to recent research and analysis, social media is also to blame for the degrading condition of the planet. While social media itself isn’t the one causing the damage, it is serving as a powerful tool. In unexpected ways, we rely on fossil fuels when we use apps like Instagram. Every time one of us checks our account, likes a picture, or uploads a story or a post, it uses energy generated by fossil fuels which eventually results in greenhouse emissions that cause global warming.


Instagram’s carbon footprint

With time, Instagram has used technology to make the app so user-friendly and addictive that diverting your attention away from it becomes difficult. Contrary to what you may believe, sitting on the couch and scrolling has an effect on the environment. Just one minute of scrolling through the newsfeed consumes energy equivalent to driving a light vehicle for 13 meters. 1 minute equals 1.5 g of CO2. That is just one minute by one person. The effects compound when over 500 million individuals use the app every day, on average for 28 minutes. That equals 21000 tonnes of CO2 every day from Instagram alone.


A study into the environmental impact of social media has revealed that a single Instagram post from Portuguese football player Cristiano Ronaldo to his 240 million followers consumes the energy equivalent of powering 10 UK households for one year.


The Selfie Index is the carbon value determined by estimating the amount of energy required to post a single picture on Instagram. The weight of uploading a single picture is around 2 MB, which is significantly higher than other social media apps. Researchers used this information to find out how much energy is required to process this picture: 5.12 kWh. The Selfie Index estimates that Instagram is responsible for about 405 tCO2 every year.


At the end of June 2021, Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri posted a video on his Instagram and Twitter accounts, talking about the future of the app. In his glimpse of the future was Instagram as primarily, a video-sharing platform, owing to the success of apps like TikTok. But what does that mean for the environment? If the footsteps of TikTok are to be followed, this transition does not look good for the environment. In a study by GreenSpector, it was found that the app ranks number 1 in both its carbon impact and energy consumption and number 2 in the rate of data exchanged per minute by scrolling through the newsfeed. The bar that TikTok has set for other social media platforms might be setting us up for failure.


Are Instagram advertisements to blam

In the last decade, Instagram has transformed from a blogging platform to a marketing one, resulting in what can be called an ‘experience economy’. Ads and influencer marketing campaigns have caused a paradigm shift in how we view everything that surrounds us. Keeping up with trends that change every week and owning ‘the must-have’ products has driven the consumerism chart through the roof. Sustainability takes a back seat when trends come into the picture and Instagram might be to blame.

Through extensive advertising and in-built shopping features, Instagram is driving up sales. Today, around 130 million Instagram users use the shopping feature on the platform every month, and more than 46 percent of those users buy the product after seeing it on the app. Fast fashion brands partner with social media companies to create hyper-specific and targeted ads, making Instagram a major player in the fast fashion industry. The industry is responsible for more than 10 percent of global carbon emissions which is more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined.



Instagram vs other apps:

Is Instagram the only one to blame? Clearly not. We are constantly surrounded by apps that send notifications and emails that need answering. If you’re one of the 2.85 million+ users on Facebook estimates suggest that you might be responsible for around 414kg of carbon dioxide a year. Most spam, unread and forgotten emails are stored on the cloud which takes up space and requires a lot of electricity, which in most parts of the world is still generated by fossil fuels. So Instagram might not be the only one to blame but does deserve a major chunk of it.


Currently, Instagram’s carbon footprint is being examined through independent studies and no assessment has painted a clear picture of just how much damage is being caused by the app. But certain facts speak for themselves and help gauge the impact of this globally favourite application.


What can you and I do?

While the numbers may be harrowing and the question of ‘what can one person do?’ still prevalent, not all hope is lost. What you and I can do is meter our time on social media apps, send fewer emails, and not sign up for newsletters in a hurry, Mindfulness can go a long way, not just in terms of our decisions that affect the environment but also in decluttering the digital junk we hoard.


What Instagram has done for consumer culture and industries is nothing short of reformative. There is a filter-clad change called aesthetic that transforms how we view the world and ask questions about it. While creativity certainly has a role to play in how this app has managed to create an army of people with a social media-related carbon footprint of their own, so does profit. The more we use apps like Instagram because we find ‘good deals’ and ‘aesthetically pleasing’ content, not only do the rich get richer but the planet becomes worse off.


References


The carbon impact of Instagram app features, GreenSpector, 23 July 2020, https://greenspector.com/en/6168-2/


Scrolling doesn’t just waste your energy. It wastes the planet’s, too, EuroGreenNews, 24 May 2021


How Social Media Habits are Contributing to Internet Pollution, Earth.Org, 27 September 2021


How Does Your Social Media Use Impact the Planet? Use This Calculator to Find Out, Global Citizen, 7 March 2022 https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/social-media-emissions-carbon-footprint/


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