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Instagram in the News: Mental Health Risks for Teen Girls

How does Instagram pose risks to girls and how we can help?

Key points

  • Internal Facebook researchers have found that Instagram makes body image issues worse for 1 in 3 teen girls.
  • Teen users find it hard to limit their Instagram use even when they want to stop, according to internal reports.
  • Parents can help teens handle Instagram by encouraging them to evaluate their use and to be more intentional about start and stop times.
Confusing messages for today's teen girls
Source: Source: Pixabay

By this time, you have probably read about the “Facebook Files,” documents leaked to The Wall Street Journal and published in a story last month, revealing internal research findings that Instagram (owned by Facebook) is harmful to teen’s mental health, and is especially detrimental to teen girls.

The report revealed that internal Facebook researchers presented findings to company executives on several occasions during the past three years, highlighting alarming statistics such as:

  • Thirty-two percent of teen girls who felt badly about their bodies felt even worse when they looked at Instagram (IG). A quote from the report: “We make body image issues worse for 1 in 3 teen girls.”
  • Teens also report that IG contributes to feelings of depression and anxiety: Thirteen percent of British users and 6% of US users who had felt suicidal said that they could trace these thoughts to their IG use.
  • Forty percent of IG users who reported feeling unattractive said the feeling began while using IG.
  • Approximately 25% of teens who feel “not good enough” said the feeling started while using IG.

Why Instagram? Three Factors That Put Girls at Risk

1. Its Body, Fitness, and Lifestyle Focus

The consensus of the research is that these negative effects are particularly exacerbated by IG, not just overall social media use. The WSJ report states that researchers warned executives, “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."

They noted specific aspects of Instagram that exacerbate negative body image and other problems in teen girls. While other popular apps among teens include TikTok (focused on short videos and an emphasis on performance) and Snapchat (with an emphasis on “jokey” filters that focus on the face), Instagram’s focus on the entire body and on lifestyle create conditions for young users to feel they don’t measure up to beauty ideals.

When scrolling through IG, not only will girls view their peers having a great time, but they will also view Influencers and celebrities posting highly edited and filtered pictures that reflect an unattainable image of perfection. Not only do girls view these perfect images, but they are also bombarded with “how to” posts and videos, suggesting that if they follow certain beauty techniques, buy certain products, wear certain clothes, refrain from certain foods, and do certain workouts, then they can and should look like this too. It is no surprise that when girls look to IG to determine how they compare to beauty ideals, they will inevitably feel inadequate and dissatisfied with their appearance and overall sense of self-worth.

2. Its Algorithmically-Driven “Explore” Feature

In addition to a user’s feed, IG also provides an “Explore” page that is populated with posts determined by an algorithm based on a user’s previous searches and content engagement. In other words, this page is not just a reflection of a girl’s friends, activities, and interests, it is based on an algorithm that manipulates what she will view; the Explore page pushes her to engage more and more with suggested content. For example, if a teen girl searches the term “workout for weight loss,” not only will she see the results of her search, but in upcoming days the algorithm will begin to display suggested pages and accounts on the Explore page related not only to workouts, but also images of idealized body types and extreme weight loss plans with posts to “inspire” people to restrict food. On a recent search, I found many accounts where girls posted how many hours or days they had fasted, accompanied by strategies for how to live without food for long periods of time. Even if a girl reaches a point where she wants to escape from constant Explore recommendations, it is hard to avoid the onslaught. Once she looks at a few of the suggested posts, her feed will contain more and more related content.

3. The Addictive Nature of the App

Another revelation from Facebook’s internal documents is that teen users find it hard to limit their use, even when they want to stop. According to the report: “They often feel ‘addicted’ and know that what they’re seeing is bad for their mental health but feel unable to stop themselves”.

Girls worry that if they are not always on-line they will fall behind in their social world (what is known as the FOMO effect). In my counseling sessions with girls who struggle with disordered eating, each one of them say they feel worse after looking at their IG feed and recognize how it exacerbates their symptoms, but they say they still can’t stop scrolling. One girl said, “I know it’s not good for me, but since my friends are on there I can’t stop checking, I can’t stop scrolling. I might miss something.”

What Can We Do to Help Girls?

IG is clearly a popular form of social media that is a part of today’s girls’ social landscape, so the answer isn’t just to ban girls from ever logging on. Instead, we need to find ways girls can use the app that are more positive and less damaging to their mental health over time. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Change perspective. Instagram is a place to visit, not to live. Encourage her to evaluate her use and to be more intentional about start and stop times. Insist on device-free times each day such as mealtimes or designated times to have in-person conversations. If you are a parent, model setting clear boundaries with your own devices so that she sees it is possible to live life without being tethered to a phone. Encourage everyone in the family to keep their devices out of their bedrooms at night and to charge them in a central charging area. This encourages not only a break from social media but also a better night’s sleep.
  2. Diversify her feed. Help girls mix up the accounts they follow to include friends, affirmative, positive comments, and positive role models. Encourage her to limit following fashion, beauty, celebrity, and fitness-focused accounts. Educate her about social media algorithms and how the Explore page works. Help her feel more empowered when she refrains from engaging in harmful content suggested to her on her Explore page.
  3. Experiment with living without likes. Facebook launched Project Daisy in May 2021, an initiative that gives users the option to hide Likes from their feeds. This can help a girl to post on IG without the pressure of seeing how her Likes measure up. Help teens to experiment with hiding likes on IG for a week or so, and to then report on the results. What did she notice? Did it make a difference in her mood?
  4. Advocate for continued change. Facebook says they are increasing their efforts to fight eating disorders by blocking users from posting triggering content such as depictions of: ribs, collarbones, thigh gaps, hips, concave stomachs, or protruding spines or scapulas when shared together with terms associated with eating disorders; and content that contains instructions for drastic and unhealthy weight loss when shared together with terms associated with eating disorders. Another initiative they implemented is not only to block users from posting harmful content but to also support users when they search for terms that promote disordered eating behaviors. If a user is trying to search for a pro-eating disorders community (groups such as #ProAnorexia or #Probulimia that support an “eating disorder lifestyle”) or terms related to disordered eating, they are directed to educational resources. For example, a recent search for a popular IG hashtag #Thinspo (abbreviation for Thinspiration) revealed the following message: “Get resources” (a link to the National Eating Disorders Association), “Talk to a friend”, or “Talk with a helpline volunteer”.

This prevention approach does not go far enough, however, because users are creative. While you will receive a warning message if you search for #Thinspo, there are still active pages for #thinspam; #thynsperation (and likely many other iterations). It will not take users long to find a way around the filters in place if people are determined to post and view these accounts. We can all do our part in reporting accounts and harmful posts we see that attempt to promote disordered eating and extreme diet or fitness ideals. With such reports, perhaps IG filters will become increasingly sensitive to these derived terms so that ultimately fewer girls will post and be exposed to content that can be so detrimental to girls’ body image and mental health.

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