Social Media is Ruining Travel
A decade ago, Iceland was a sleepy country that welcomed a healthy, but not significant, number of visitors each year. Then Instagrammers discovered its spectacular natural beauty — and the once-pristine country became a stomping ground (literally) for obnoxious tourists.
In pursuit of Instagram glory, travelers to the nation have trampled fragile moss, sat on glaciers, flown drones over wildlife, offroaded into protected geothermal areas and, in at least one case, peed in the countryside. In response to the degradation, the Iceland tourist board was forced to issue a statement: "It's a shame Instagrammers behave like this."
A shame? Yes. Surprising? Not at all.
Around the world, influencers and regular-old travelers alike are destroying local environments, posing provocatively at sites of tragedy and even putting their own lives at risk, all in a vain attempt to drum up interest on social media.
Less damningly, but still troublingly, many are lying about their travels on social platforms and posting so incessantly that they're forgetting to, you know, actually enjoy their vacation.
What's behind this troubling phenomenon? What can be done to curb the problem? And just how bad are things anyways?
These questions have complicated answers — but if Iceland is any indication, they need to be asked.
So...just how bad are things anyways?
It's common knowledge that many people post to social media while traveling, but the trend is more pervasive than you may have thought. All told, about 60 percent of travelers share photos while on vacation.
Among millennials, the number is even higher — 97 percent. (Yes, 97 percent.)
Of course, people post to social media whether they're on vacation or not. But there's evidence that usage can actually be amplified during travels.
In one Expedia survey, about a quarter of respondents said they pay more attention to social media when they’re on vacation than when they’re not.
Which, we have to say, kind of seems to defeat the whole point of travel.
This even has an impact on where young travelers choose to go. In the UK, 40 percent of millennials explicitly take the Instagram-worthiness of a destination into account when planning their trip.
Of course, posting travel shots to social media isn’t all bad. In fact, it can have many positive impacts.
One 2016 study out of the University of California, Irvine suggested that posting travel selfies can boost confidence, creativity and mindfulness, while reducing stress.
For many, it’s also a useful way to stay connected with loved ones, not unlike sending postcards. Monica Stephens, assistant professor in the Department of Geography at the University at Buffalo, tells Far & Wide, "Sharing travel experiences on social media makes the person posting feel connected and embedded in a community."
And if you’re a solo traveler in particular, it can reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness.
But the compulsion to post to social media while traveling has serious downsides, too.
For one thing, it can make us more invested in sharing our vacation than in actually enjoying our vacation. Ciarán Henderson MSc, a social media psychologist, describes this as the difference between building a memory and building a portfolio. "People spend a lot of time telling people about their experience, but forget to have their experience," he tells Far & Wide.
This might account for the fact that, in the aforementioned Expedia survey, 44 percent of people said social media ruined their holiday experience in some way.
In an effort to impress, many travelers will exaggerate or even straight-up lie to make their experience appear better than it is.
According to a survey from JetCost, two-thirds of people have misrepresented how amazing their vacation was, exaggerating the beauty of the weather they experienced, the quality of their accommodations and the number of attractions they saw.
Why? “To avoid embarrassment and to impress people by appearing well-traveled and worldly.”
This “fake it til you make it” pathology is so pervasive, there's even a cottage industry that's been built up around it.
For a fee, one company called — no joke — Fake a Vacation will transpose an image of you onto an exotic locale, so it can look like you've gone somewhere fabulous even if you have not. (Now that's an affordable vacation.)
Looking to post a shot from your “travels” to Hawaii? A cool $29.99.
Want your friends to see you living the high-roller life in Sin City? A steal at $19.99.
Lying on social media is one thing; far more nefarious is the influx of people posting outright offensive content.
Sometimes this is done out of a combination of ignorance and social-media obsession, with people so eager to share everything about their trip that they're blinded to the offensiveness of what they're posting. Sometimes it's a (misguided at best) attempt at humor; as Stephens puts it, "They enjoy the irony of the inappropriateness. "
Other times, though, it's borne out of an explicit desire to drum up controversy and attention — narcissism at its ugliest.
Henderson says this harks back to the "if it bleeds it leads" idea; people know that provocative images will boost engagement and push their content up in the feed, so they purposefully share insensitive shots.
"I dont think [posting these photos is] innocent at all," Henderson says. "It’s completely contrived and thought out."
A particularly horrifying example of this phenomenon is the proliferation of photos taken at Holocaust sites. Take Auschwitz, the concentration camp where at least 1.1 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust. In recent years, it's become a popular spot for blithe, carefree social snaps.
People who’ve come to this site of extraordinary tragedy have posted photos of themselves doing yoga poses, flashing peace signs, smiling broadly and skipping along the railroad tracks that brought victims to the site.
One social-media user even decided to post a photo of a smiling rubber ducky in front of the Gate of Death at the entrance to the concentration camp.
Read that again: A rubber duckie. In front of the Gate of Death.
On Twitter, the backlash to these images has been swift, with one tweeter lambasting people who treat these sites like “amusement parks.”
The Auschwitz Memorial itself eventually stepped in, imploring visitors to “remember [they] are at the site where over 1 million people were killed.”
An Israeli artist, Shahak Shapira, was so incensed by the trend of insensitive shots taken at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin that he combined carefree selfies with gruesome pictures from the Holocaust — bringing the deep insensitivity of such imagery into stark focus.
Besides Holocaust memorials, perhaps the most well-known site for inappropriate shots is Chernobyl.
After the success of the HBO show about the site of one of the worst nuclear accidents in history, hordes of camera-toting tourists turned it into the latest hot spot for glib Insta photos. Never mind that the Chernobyl tragedy has been linked to thousands of deaths.
Says Henderson: "It blows my mind that people can be so insensitive."
Model Veronika Rocheva caught heat for posing provocative photos tagged #pripyat — the ghost city that was decimated by the Chernobyl explosion.
Rocheva later claimed the images, including this one of her in a gas mask, were actually taken thousands of miles away in Siberia. Which raised the question of why she lied to make the photos seem more offensive than they were.
The wave of offensive Insta shots was so sweeping that the screenwriter for “Chernobyl,” Craig Mazin, took to Twitter to ask people to stop.
The insensitivity of travelers isn’t limited to posing fun-loving photos at sites of tragedies; some travelers are actively destroying the places they’re visiting in their pursuit of Instagram likes.
In the short term, Henderson notes, Insta-famousness can be good for a tourist site; more visitors, after all, is generally a boon for the local economy.
"But what about 20 or 30 years on?" he asks. "What’s the impact on the environment? What happens when there’s no tourist place to visit anymore?"
Last year, near the town of Lake Elsinore in California, the Walker Canyon nature reserve bloomed with millions of golden poppies following heavy rain. When people started posting the “superbloom” to social media, hordes more followed suit, looking to take their own photos. By weekend’s end, an astonishing 66,000 tourists had trampled through the field in the hopes of sharing the remarkable landscape on Instagram.
Ultimately, streets had to be closed to non-residents and the flowers themselves were squashed, turning the super bloom into a super disaster. Officials dubbed the fiasco “#poppynightmare.”
Over in Canada, a flower fiasco a couple years ago had even more dire consequences. When a field of 1.4 million sunflowers at Bogle Seeds in Ontario went viral, so many people descended upon the small farm that the owners ended up closing it — permanently.
Meanwhile, the sunflowers, notoriously fragile, were left vulnerable to drought and disease. The anarchic scene was likened to a “zombie apocalypse.”
For years, travelers to stone beaches have posted photos of the rocks stacked high. But this “Insta-perfect” shot is damning to the environment, threatening the lizards, insects, spiders and plant life that populate the ecosystem.
On Tenerife, the largest of Spain’s Canary Islands, so many “stone towers” were made that the local government and organizations banded together to discourage tourists from making them.
Yet despite efforts to spread awareness and to physically remove the towers, the destructive trend has continued.
The compulsion to turn a trip into a social-media sensation doesn't just put ecosystems at risk; it puts lives at risk. Blinded by the compulsion to share on social, some people are snapping photos from locations that are deadly.
Take the case of a lake in Novosibirsk, Russia, that's so dazzlingly blue, it goes by the nickname "Novosibirsk Maldives." Its color is the result of ash dump from a nearby coal plant, but the toxicity hasn't swayed people from wading in its waters for selfies, prompting officials to issue a warning to stop.
Other people are putting their lives on the line by scaling buildings to capture shocking photos that, again, are designed to drum up engagement and interest, even if for negative reasons. And these stunts can (and do) turn deadly.
Stuntman Wu Yongning, for example, gained hundreds of thousands of followers on Weibo, China’s social-media network, by posting selfies of himself from the top of skyscrapers, sometimes dangling from his fingertips. Then, in 2017, while scaling a 62-story building in Changsha city without safety equipment, he plummeted to his death.
The tragedy was not without precedent; between 2011 and 2017, 259 people died in their pursuit of a selfie.
Yet despite the proven risks involved, the trend has continued to thrive. You can even search for these photos via the simple and chilling hashtag, #DangerousSelfies.
One of the “stars” of the dangerous selfies trend is Angela Nikolau, shown here casually risking her life atop a skyscraper in Tianjin, China.
Another popular presence on Instagram is Daniel Lau, who took this terrifying photo in Hong Kong.
Seemingly not too startled by the trend, the Brazilian tourist board sponsored one daredevil, travel blogger and photographer Lee Thompson, to take photos from the top of the mountaintop, 125-foot Christ the Redeemer statue. What could go wrong?
Train selfies like the one shown here have become so ubiquitous, they’ve been banned in places like India and Sri Lanka.
One of the most popular types of photo is the “roofie,” which should be pretty self-explanatory from the name (and the photo shown here).
Posing in front of wild, predatory animals has become alarmingly common as well. (This is also, it should be noted, not at all good for the animals.)
Not everyone who travels posts selfies in front of wild lions, of course — or, for that matter, tramples through sensitive ecosystems or poses with a duck-face at a concentration camp. But those outlandish examples tap into a desire shared by many — a desire to use travel as a way to bolster one's self-esteem and image, rather than to meaningfully experience a new destination and its culture.
Though posting to social media can feel like a necessary part of a vacation, at the end of the day, it simply is not. When asked how to break the stronghold social media has on traveling, Henderson offers simple advice: "First and obviously, just disconnect. Stop using it."
If that seems too daunting — "disconnecting takes incredible discipline," Henderson concedes — consider using a service to limit your usage.
Facebook and Instagram have tools that let you check how much time you spend each day on social media, and to set limits for yourself. Exceed the maximum amount of time you want to spend on the platform (an hour, say) and an alert will go off.
If you really want to commit to saying no to social media, you can go somewhere where hitting up Facebook or Instagram is next to impossible.
Resorts and retreats in far-flung destinations like Alaska, Newfoundland and the Seychelles offer the terrifying and enticing promise of virtually no cell service or Wi-Fi, forcing you to spend a few days away from your favorite social platform.
Other properties have established special programs to help you disconnect. Velas Resorts in Mexico, for instance, recently introduced a Digital Concierge, "tasked with the all-important duty of 'cleansing' [a guest's] suite by removing the flat screen television from the room, replacing it with classic board games and then whisking away their personal electronic devices (phone, laptop, iPad, PSP, etc.) to a safe."
No matter how you choose to limit your time on social media — by intentionally tapping out, implementing a tool on your phone or traveling to the farthest reaches of Earth — doing so is imperative.
"We live in a society where we are overwhelmed with things coming at us, trying to take our attention," Henderson says. "The idea of going away, of having a break, offers an opportunity for building back well-being."
In other words, posting about traveling to Iceland can be fun, but just experiencing Iceland will likely be better. Imagine bathing in mineral hot springs, chasing Northern Lights, strolling a black-sand beach and sharing brennivín with locals at a bar — all without posting a single thing to Instagram.
"Allow yourself to disconnect," Henderson says — and let the vacation truly begin.