Health, emotion, activism

34 Four tips on using Instagram to study the emotions of parenthood

Linnea Hanell, Stockholm University

Becoming a parent is life-changing. And in addition to being a physically challenging experience, it is also a deeply emotional one. Parents may feel love, joy and happiness, but also anxiety about their new responsibilities. For new mothers the first few weeks can be a time when they find themselves feeling moody and tearful, sometimes referred to as the ‘baby blues.’ At this important moment, sharing one’s feelings and experiences can be helpful. Instagram has become a site on which recent parents can share how they cope with the various challenges they face. It also offers researchers to study the variety of discursive practices that they engage with.

Caption: Parenting in the iOS age Credit: Flickr/Jonathan Nalder CC BY-NC 2.0

Credit: Jonathan Nalder/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

In a study on health discourse in the everyday life of a new parent, I used Instagram as one of the many ways of keeping in touch with my informant ‘Veronica.’ In particular, Instagram enabled me to keep track of what was happening in my informant’s life between the meetings that we actually got together for about once a month. Veronica was quite active on Instagram, posting 340 pictures during the six months of our working together, so her postings became an important data source for me, being, as I was, interested in her engagement in various forms of health communication. I discovered, however, that Instagram can be a difficult site for conducting this kind of ethnographic, long-term fieldwork, as it required a great deal of time and effort on my part before producing any great insights. Therefore, I would like to share some of the difficulties I had with the site and offer recommendations for overcoming them. By doing so I hope to save future researchers’ time and energy that could be better spent on their actual analysis.

There are different ways of accessing and recording Instagram activity, and none of them seem to be optimal for ethnographic work. There is, in short, the Instagram app, and then various online URL feeds. The app is probably the most common way to access Instagram, and it might be seen as the most authentic instantiation of Instagram activity. Thus, if you want to use visual representations of your data, you might want to present it to your audience as it appears in the app. However, the Instagram feed is continuously filled with new postings, and it is not possible to skip back in time in the app; rather, you have to scroll through all postings in reverse chronological order. This can be a problem if you are following a very active user, as I was. Veronica has posted more than 2,000 pictures since we finished working together, which means that I have to scroll for around fifteen minutes to get to the time frame I am interested in seeing. This is obviously not something one wants to do any more often than is necessary. Hence my first tip:

  • Do screenshots of postings that seem most important in the app.

Following this rule, you will not need to do screenshots of everything that happens; stick to what you might want to use as examples when you present the study later on.

To review what was going on during the actual period, consider my second tip:

Unlike many other online Instagram feeds, this website will allow you to skip back in time and look at only the postings made during a particular period. However, the layout is completely different from the Instagram app, so I have avoided using it for visual representations of my data (therefore, take heed of tip no. 1).

You might be interested in the comments section in addition to the actual postings of your informant. If so, note that if a person deletes their account, the comments they have written will disappear as well. Thus, my third tip is:

  • Save the comments to important posts.

This can be done through screenshots in the app, which, again, is good if you want to demonstrate the interaction visually as it appeared on Instagram. However, since only a small share of the comments will fit on one screen, you may have to do numerous screenshots to cover them all. In that case, it’s more practical to access the posting with an online feed, and copy and paste the comments from there. Besides gramfeed.com, Instagram has its own web application: instagram.com.  However, if you want to get an ultra-authentic representation of the interaction, you might be bothered by the fact that neither gramfeed.com nor instagram.com can show emojis the way they appear in the app.

Therefore, my fourth and final tip:

  • Use iconosquare.com to access the comments section interaction with emojis intact.

To conclude, I strongly recommend using Instagram to complement other ethnographic work (or use as the exclusive field site, although I have never tried this myself). For me, it has proven to be a useful way to keep in touch with my informant and get to know her without being too intrusive, as well as to take a peek into the everyday conversations she engages in. I am confident that this tool will be even more useful and rewarding for researchers who consider these four tips as they venture into the field.

Linnea Hanell

Linnea Hanell is interested in sociolinguistic and linguistic-anthropological aspects of knowledge and health. She is currently finishing up her PhD project, which focuses on processes whereby discourse enters into actions concerning health aspects of parenthood. This project comprises a study about a new mother (reported on here), as well as one about an online discussion forum thread for pregnant women, and one about midwives giving preparatory lectures to expecting parents. She can be found on Twitter as @linneahanell.