My daughter is 15 and my son is 12. They both have Instagram accounts and are not afraid to use them …

Parents are often concerned about the large-scale and frequent use of social media by their tweens and teens. Several classes of valid concerns are out there, including concerns about bullying, “sexting,” inappropriate language, “stranger danger,” etc. This stuff can also be addicting for our kids - and addiction to social media and to electronic devices are big issues in households around the world.

This all said, note that this particular piece doesn’t focus on the negatives associated with social media. Rather, using an evolutionary analysis rooted in Trivers’(1971) theory of reciprocal altruism, this piece speaks to how social media platforms, such as Instagram, inherently include  the structure to help our kids develop much-needed skils when it comes to social interactions, generally, and pro-social acts (acts that help others) in particular.

Reciprocal Altruism in Brief

In a famous effort to explain pro-social acts that take place between non-kin, Robert Trivers hypothesized that, given certain ecological conditions, pro-social behavior could be expected to evolve in a species. More specifically, Trivers argued that pro-social behavior between non-kin could be expected to evolve in species that meet the following criteria:

  • The species has a relatively long life-span.
  • Individuals in the species can recognize and identify “conspecifics,” or specific other members of their species.
  • The individuals in the species live in relatively stable social groups.

In short, if you’re part of a species where you live long, favors to others have a chance of being paid back (so they can be beneficial to oneself). Further, if the individuals can recognize one another, then the individuals have the ability to behave in a pro-social manner in a discriminating way, helping others who have helped them in the past. Finally, if you live in a social group, there is plenty of reason that you will see the same individuals over and over and over again. In species that meet such criteria, helping others in a way such that there are expectations to receive pro-social behavior in return can evolve as such a system, which we call a system of “reciprocal altruism,” can ultimately have benefits to any particular individual who essentially “plays the game right” – by engaging in a pro-social manner to others who, based on past experience, can be expected to reciprocate such acts.

The Development of a Psychology Connected with Pro-Social Behavior

In our species, the large-scale presence of reciprocal altruism is foundational. And a major part of social development in humans has always been largely about learning the social skills and actions that surround reciprocal altruism. Such social attributes that we learn throughout early development include:

  • Learning to share with others
  • Learning to inhibit one’s selfish desires
  • Learning whom to trust
  • Cultivating a reputation as one whom can be counted on
  • Learning how to not be taken advantage of by others

In learning such skills, ideally, an individual can learn to become one who is a trusted member of the community and someone who has good judgment regarding which other members of the community can be counted on to contribute in pro-social ways. These are the skills that ultimately are essential in a species where reciprocal altruism is foundational.

Instagram and the Development of Social Skills

Instagram is a social-media-based software that is used by millions of tweens, teens, and adults to stay connected. As a parent of two Instagrammers – and as an evolutionary behavioral scientist, I have come to think about how Instagram use connects with social development in a world characterized by reciprocal altruism. Below are some important ways that Instagram can help this generation of tech-savvy kids to develop such skills.

  • Instagram helps kids develop a sense of reciprocity. On Instagram, people post photos – and they are sometimes “liked” by others. A rule of Instagram that I have learned from my kids is that if you like someone else’s photos, he or she is likely to like your photos. And apparently, the number of “likes” you get is a significant marker of your social success in such a world.
  • In the world of Instagram, if you follow someone, he or she is likely to follow you. Again, this basic rule maps onto the foundation of the concept of reciprocal altruism.
  • Posting too much in Instagram is discouraged. Kids who get a reputation for posting too much apparently aren’t super-popular on Instagram. This may well be comparable to someone in the adult world who just won’t stop talking! … and you know who I’m talking about!
  • One’s social status is tracked by various markers in Instagram. Social status is related to the trust that one has from his or her peers. Working toward relatively high social status is something that people have evolved to do. With Instagram, kids carefully examine the number of people whom they follow relative to the number of others who follow them. The general rule is that higher social status corresponds to a relatively high ratio of followers to “following.” If this ratio is relatively high, then this is a signal that you are popular and are trusted by others in your community.
  • Mean behavior is punished on Instagram. As is true with any social-communication system, people have the opportunity to be nasty in Instagram. But you know what? In the rare cases that I have seen this kind of thing, I’ve been highly impressed by the community-based responses that emerge. People call mean-spirited behaviors out on Instagram – just as they do in the real world. And this kind of behavior, technically called “altruistic punishment” (see Marlowe et al., 2007) is an important feature of social interactions in humans across the world.   

Bottom Line

Human beings evolved with reciprocal altruism as a foundational aspect of our social worlds. Through human development, people learn social skills that help them succeed in such a world that is characterized by high levels of reciprocal altruism (see Geher, 2011). We learn to develop reputations as pro-social, we learn skills to help us not be exploited by others, and we learn how to develop important relationships with others that are mutually beneficial.

Instagram, like any social-media platform, seems evolutionarily unnatural in many ways. This said, when you look carefully at Instagram-related behavior from an evolutionary perspective, you see the same kinds of social-behavioral rules that help cultivate important skills related to living in a world in which reciprocal altruism is everywhere.


Geher, G. (2011). Evolutionarily informed parenting: A ripe area for scholarship in evolutionary studies. EvoS Journal: The Journal of the Evolutionary Studies Consortium, 3(2), 26-36.

Marlowe, Frank W.; Berbesque, J. Colette (2007). "More ‘altruistic’ punishment in larger societies". Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 275 (1634): 587–590.

Trivers, R. L. (1971). The evolution of reciprocal altruism. Quarterly Review of Biology, 46, 35–57.

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