Muting on Instagram serves many purposes. It's been most openly known as a step below blocking: a basic way to hide posts or stories from someone who perhaps updates their account too often or whose digital life you don't need to see.
But a growing reason for muting isn't so simple.
At an Instagram event this week, a panel of creators spoke to journalists about the various ways in which they use the app, and their own relationship with social media. Many told us how this relationship has evolved, especially after the pandemic. But one phenomenon within this conversation stood out to me. Several of these creators said they have utilized Instagram's mute feature — and not to limit annoying content, but because of their own envy.
The creators spoke about professional or personal jealousy that hindered their own progress. In other words, this is envy, defined as feelings of resentment(opens in a new tab) over what someone else has. Participants said things like brand endorsements, or even someone else's covetable wardrobe, prompted them to mute other creators.
Turns out, they're not the only ones. Muting is already pervasive, but muting as a result of pressing jealousy or envy is too.
What prompts an envious Instagram mute?
Dulcie, 31, tells me that she once muted her best friend when he went on holiday with his girlfriend.
"I was just profoundly jealous that he was on holiday and I wasn't," she says. "It felt weird to be jealous of my nice friend having a nice time, but also I haven’t left the country in a long time and was having a shit time with work, so it kind of makes sense."
Likewise, Prema, 26, said she muted her flatmate on Instagram when the latter went to a two-month weight loss camp. At the time, her content was about "the significant weight loss" and "how good she looked and felt."
"It triggered me because I was also trying to make the same feeling happen for myself, but I don't have the luxury," Prema explains. "At first I didn't realise I was jealous so I just muted her. Then I realised what I was jealous about wasn't her progress — it was more that I was jealous because I wish I could do the same thing for myself."
What both Prema and Dulcie witnessed on Instagram elicited pretty strong reactions. But this is the nature of social media, a problem since its inception.
"It’s completely understandable why engaging with social media on a frequent basis may lead to increased feelings of jealousy or envy," says Dr. Anisha Patel-Dunn, DO, psychiatrist, and Chief Medical Officer at LifeStance Health. "We’re only seeing a tiny snippet of other’s lives that may be edited to seem 'perfect'."
"At first I didn't realise I was jealous so I just muted her. Then I realised what I was jealous about wasn't her progress..."
"It's curated content at its finest," Dr. Lauren Cook, Founder at Heartship Psychological Services(opens in a new tab), agrees. "When we're getting cherry-picked content, it's so easy to compare ourselves and feel like we're not measuring up. Whether it's the amount of followers someone has to their appearance and body size, we can feel jealous at a moment's notice because we tell ourselves that someone is doing better than us or that they're 'further along' than we are. A sense of inadequacy can immediately ensue."
Pressing mute out of professional angst also seems to be commonplace. Sally Anne Howard, 32, calls it "comparisonitis", saying that she has "blocked so many people in the past" as a symptom of jealousy. The founder of marketing agency 49 North Digital(opens in a new tab), Howard says muting has been freeing for her, even catalyzing her own growth.
"Turning on your blinkers and muting those whose success triggers you can actually be really freeing. It allows you to focus on spending your energy and your time serving your people and rather than worrying about what someone else is up to," she says.
Dulcie says that she has also muted people out of professional jealousy.
"I always feel like a bit of a bitch for doing it, but I figure it doesn’t actually matter. I'm just preserving a bit of peace," she says.
"I find muting someone has always helped. It stops me from getting hurt and feeling crap about myself."
Many of those who spoke to me said muting has been both helpful and has sent a message. Ania, 25, says she "highly recommends" muting. In the past, she's muted exes and one friend whose frequent content gets "slightly draining."
"I find muting someone has always helped. It stops me from getting hurt and feeling crap about myself," she continues. "It’s also a big 'fuck you', and goes to show I don’t really care what you are posting."
There is just cause to examine the roots of envy, and how the emotion sprouts on social media(opens in a new tab). A 2018 study in the Social Science and Medicine(opens in a new tab) journal found that great levels of jealousy are associated with slower growth in psychological well-being. The authors also found that envy isn't "a useful motivator", nor does it predict success. The same study named social media and large-scale advertising as stimulants behind feeling "envious and inadequate." In another, Young People and Social Media: Contemporary Children’s Digital Culture(opens in a new tab), scholars examined adolescents' wellbeing on social media, ultimately finding that the vast majority of participants said Instagram has resulted in them feeling envious.
Cook says there can be a downside to immediately muting someone who incites jealousy. "I'm not the biggest fan of muting a person or unfollowing even just because you feel jealous. When we do this, we're really just avoiding our emotions and running away from the pain," she says.
Howard agrees that there are are other ways to cope with envy, even though muting has helped her to stop comparing herself to others.
"Working through what it is that's provoked the jealousy or envy can be more productive long term," she says. "There'll always be competition, especially in business, and sometimes muting isn't the healthiest way of dealing with it."
Patel-Dunn suggests taking a break from social media if you find yourself muting or outright unfollowing people.
"If you find that you’re using the mute feature frequently, it can be an important signal that maybe there is something more to your reaction," she says. It can also be helpful to open up to friends, family or a licensed mental health professional and share how you’re feeling. It’s so easy to fall into the comparison trap, and talking about what you’re going through can be very beneficial."
Likewise, Cook says it's important to sit with those kind of feelings, of competition and comparison, and to consider "reframing" such thoughts.
"What does this person have that you want? Rather than leaning into the jealousy, what if you used that emotion as data to tell you what you may be deeply yearning for?" she says, explaining the worth in "sitting with those feelings" for both yourself and for whatever relationship you have with certain people and their social media accounts.
"We may even get to a place where we can cheer on the other person, rather than feel like they're a threat to our worth," she says.
If muting stops someone from spiraling internally — or going as far as taking their jealousy out on someone — then maybe it's the right way to go. But reaching for that mute option may also be the right moment to reflect: on why you need this option, who is sparking this kind of emotion in you, and if there's some work to be done, away from the four corners of a phone screen.