Facebook knows all about Instagram’s harmful effects on teen girls

A recent report from the Wall Street Journal found that Instagram is aware that it fuels body image and self-esteem issues in teenage girls.

It’s no secret that social media isn’t great for our health. Sites such as Instagram fill our minds withbody image issues and the idea that everyone else’s life is better than ours, which can result in major feelings of inadequacy even for the best of us.

As it turns out, parent company Facebook has known for a while about all the ways that it harms its users, particularly teenage girls.

Instagram fuels body image issues in teen girls

According to a recent expose by Wall Street Journal (WSJ) - made possible with a leak by the tech firm - Facebook has been studying its effects on younger users’ mental health since 2019, repeatedly finding Instagram to be detrimental for teenage girls’ self-esteem.

According to WSJ, a 2019 internal presentation reported by Facebook and Instagram revealed, ‘we make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls.’ A subsequent presentation shown just one year later further concluded ‘comparisons on Instagram can change how young women view and describe themselves.’

Thirty-two per cent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.

One Facebook study even found that 40% of teens in the UK and US who felt ‘unattractive’ pinpointed that the feelings began while usingInstagram.

The findings resulted from focus groups, surveys and diary studies from 2019 to 2020 are all part of Facebook’s ‘teen mental health deep dive.’ The research concluded that some of the ill effects teens are experiencing are actually exclusive to Instagram, particularly social comparisons involving body and lifestyle. The WSJ explained:

The tendency to share only the best moments, a pressure to look perfect and an addictive product can send teens spiraling toward eating disorders, an unhealthy sense of their own bodies and depression.

Despite the bleak studies, Instagram’s Head of Public Policy Karina Newton claimed that WSJ’s findings had focused on a ‘limited set of findings’ that casts the platform in a ‘negative light.’

However, Newton didn’t shy away from the findings. Instead, she claimed that the ‘teen mental health deep dive’ actually demonstrated ‘commitment to understanding complex and difficult issues young people may struggle with, and informs all the work we do to help those experiencing these issues.’

What is the solution to Instagram-fueled body image issues?

While it would make sense to just delete the app, it seems that the waves of crushing inadequacy and mental health issues dealt by Instagram can’t be solved by simply logging off. Instagram researchers found that while teens wanted to spend less time on the site, they often lacked the self-control to follow through. According to the documents, an Instagram research manager explained:

Teens told us that they don’t like the amount of time they spend on the app but feel like they have to be present. They often feel ‘addicted’ and know that what they’re seeing is bad for their mental health but feel unable to stop themselves.

However, the responsibility shouldn’t fall exclusively on users. While Facebook and Instagram are aware of their harm, the question remains: what are they doing to solve the problem?

Back in 2020, Facebook rolled out ‘Project Daisy’, which allowed users to hide the number of likes they were getting on their Instagram posts. Unfortunately, the initiative didn’t seem to result in any mental health improvements.

In Newton’s Instagram blog post, she explained another idea the platform is exploring is to nudge users away from harmful content:

From our research, we’re starting to understand the types of content some people feel may contribute to negative social comparison, and we’re exploring ways to prompt them to look at different topics if they’re repeatedly looking at this type of content.

Newton continued: ‘We’re cautiously optimistic that these nudges will help point people towards content that inspires and uplifts them, and to a larger extent, will shift the part of Instagram’s culture that focuses on how people look.’

While we can be hopeful that filling algorithms with positive, inspiring content can help reverse some of the damage done, Jasmine Fardouly, a research fellow at the University of New South Wales in Australia focusing on social media’s impact on body image, told The Times that the solution might not be such an easy fix:

I think because Instagram is based on images, it is difficult to not make it an appearance-focused environment. We may be able to reduce harm, but there will always be some ways that Instagram is harmful.
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