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What's Really Hurting Girls' Mental Health?

It's tempting to blame social media, but the problem likely lies much deeper.

Key points

  • Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen claims that Instagram harms teen girls, but the data is unreliable.
  • Good social research requires a large data sample, but Facebook’s conclusions were based on just 150 non-representative survey respondents.
  • It may be easier to scapegoat social media than acknowledge that many outdated cultural and family conventions reinforce misogyny.

“I believe that Facebook’s products harm children,” said whistleblower Frances Haugen, as she testified before a Senate panel earlier this week. She claimed to have inside information proving that Facebook’s social media products, including Instagram and WhatsApp, are “generating self-harm and self-hate—especially for vulnerable groups, like teenage girls.” Unsurprisingly, folks latched onto this story quickly. Many of us love to hate social media, almost as much as we love a good damsel-in-distress fairy tale.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon/Unsplash
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon
Source: Photo by Sharon McCutcheon/Unsplash

Everyone knows that researchers have been looking at the relationship between digital media and teen well-being for decades. A few high-profile celebrity psychologists have repeatedly claimed—with little evidence—that smartphones are causing an adolescent mental health epidemic. Many parents buy into a form of technophobia that’s grounded in nostalgia for the good ol’ days. But most experts agree that the evidence we have so far remains inconclusive, contradictory, and unreliable. Facebook’s internal marketing data, leaked by Haugen, is even less dependable.

So, why is everyone talking about it? What makes the Facebook Files worthy of a major newspaper story and a televised Senate panel? It may be that it's a lot easier to scapegoat social media than it is to acknowledge that our ongoing commitment to outdated cultural and family conventions reinforces and maintains exploitative misogynist attitudes about beauty, sex, consent, and gender.

Feminist writers and psychologists have argued for decades that the entire world is organized in a way that makes teen girls internalize the male gaze and feel bad about their bodies. Shifting the blame onto Instagram, then, will do nothing to address the negative ways patriarchal male entitlement affects teen girls’ self-esteem. Instead, I argue that we need to recognize the recent headlines about Facebook and Instagram for what they are: lock-up-your-daughters paternalism mixed with old-fashioned moral-panic and a lot of confirmation bias.

It's likely that many media personalities and Senators will continue to imply that Facebook is involved in some giant corporate coverup, like big tobacco or the Sackler family. But nothing about the leaked data or other independent research points in that direction.

Supposedly, the social media behemoth was aware that 30 percent of teen girls believe that Instagram made them feel worse about their bodies. But as Anya Kamenetz, NPR correspondent and author of The Art of Screen Time, reported, Facebook’s numbers are not based on reliable research, and would likely not pass muster at any reputable peer-review journal.

Good social research requires a large, representative data sample, but Facebook’s conclusions were based on just 150 survey respondents (out of a few thousand) who reported already having body image issues. Kamenetz writes, “The finding does not describe a random sampling of teenage girls or even all the girls in the survey, and it’s a subset of a subset of a subset.”

The same shortcoming is even clearer when it comes to the oft-quoted “alarming” conclusion that “among teens who reported suicidal thoughts, 13 percent of British users and 6 percent of American users traced the desire to kill themselves to Instagram.” These figures were based on just 16 individual respondents—a number The New Yorker oddly describes as “a non-trivial proportion of suicidal teenagers.” The actual moral bankruptcy would be if Facebook’s data scientists took these figures seriously.

 Anthony Quintano from Honolulu, HI, United States, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Mark Zuckerberg F8 2018 Keynote
Source: Anthony Quintano from Honolulu, HI, United States, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

I personally have no fondness for Mark Zuckerberg, but when it comes to children’s well-being, I try to be careful to not let technophobic prejudice shape my thinking. And in this case, in my view, social media is not the problem. It’s just the technology we’re using, at this particular moment in history, to maintain the misogynistic, cis-hetero status quo.

Many things are harmful to teen girls under a patriarchal social system such as ours. Some are happening in the privacy of our own homes, but the Senate is rarely willing to be outraged about most of them.

Consider, for example, the way gender stereotypes define many people's parenting identities. Studies consistently demonstrate that household labor remains unequally distributed even in most marriages with proudly progressive husbands—those who proclaim themselves evolved, feminist men. While men as a whole have become much more involved in family care over the past few decades, women still tend to be the default caretakers.

In her book, All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers, and the Myth of Equal Partnership, author Darcy Lockman explained that even working mothers “devote twice as much time to family care as men.” Whether married or divorced, mothers are far more likely than fathers to take responsibility for envisioning, planning, organizing, managing, and executing the logistics of their children’s lives. They may coordinate transportation to and from soccer games, gather supplies for school trips, keep kids focused on homework assignments, prepare for birthday parties and sleepovers, make appointments for pediatric checkups, and more.

How do children make sense of witnessing these discrepancies? What conclusions do they draw about gender? The requisite skills needed to accomplish these tasks don’t track neatly to stereotypically feminine competencies. Still, teen girls observe their parents and may learn to take the unspoken (and often spoken) sexist expectations of the patriarchal nuclear family for granted.

Modern, involved fathers tend to spend a lot more time than mothers playing with their kids—ball on the front lawn, jovial roughhousing and prosocial teasing, joint media engagement, and video games. On the surface, this seems nice, but I argue that it reinforces what I like to call “narcissistic patriarchal authority.” It sends kids the message that women maintain the home to provide a place for male leisure and relaxation. Teen girls learn that self-sacrifice, in the service of men, defines mature womanhood.

When it comes to how well-meaning #GirlDads tend to interact with their daughters, certain creepy cultural narratives of female adolescent development could cause way more harm than any airbrushed Instagram post ever could. In her book, Relative Intimacy: Fathers, Adolescent Daughters, and Postwar American Culture, historian Rachel Devlin explained how a misguided psychanalytic trend promoted by doctors in the 1940s led people to believe that the way a father witnessed his daughter blossoming into a mature woman was the defining factor in her sexual development.

Simply put, if Dad gave her too much attention, she’d never be satisfied with another man; she’d become permanently fixated on her father. If he gave her too little, she’d become sexually promiscuous, always seeking the validation that wasn’t provided; she’d have "daddy issues." The father-daughter relationship is thus, in this view, an oddly eroticized balancing act. He must offer approval in ways that make his daughter feel confident but not boastful, attractive but not licentious, autonomous but not uninhibited. In a sense, Dad is seen as the "prototypical boyfriend."

You may think that we’ve moved away from this disturbing way of thinking. I argue that we haven’t. It still characterizes some of our assumptions about what it means to be a father figure. Consider, for example, this line from Sarah Ruhl’s 2003 play Eurydice: “A wedding is for daughters and fathers. The mothers all dress up, trying to look like young women. But a wedding is for a father and daughter. They stop being married to each other on that day.” Or this statement often attributed to bestselling devotional author Gregory Lang: “A daughter needs a dad to be the standard against which she will judge all men.” Or how about this sentiment attributed to Lady Gaga? “I love my daddy. My daddy’s everything. I hope I can find a man that will treat me as good as my dad.”

The expectation that a paternal authority figure is a model for a girl’s future romantic relationships masquerades as a good-natured and psychologically grounded strategy for fighting gender inequality, counteracting misogynistic messaging, and building better aspirations for womanhood. But in reality, it cunningly reinforces the same old patriarchal expectation that women be complacent and obedient. Societal messages such as these mean that teen girls may internalize the idea that love, attraction, and respect are things you earn in the eyes of a male authority figure—that dignity and value are like merit badges you secure in exchange for demonstrating proper appearances and behaviors.

The daddy-daughter relationship is just one among many transactional hierarchies that teach teen girls that their self-worth is dependent on the male gaze. This has little, if anything, to do with Instagram; it’s everywhere. In her memoir Girlhood, Melissa Febos provided a brilliant first-person account. “By my early twenties, I had already undergone a long education in this,” she writes. “I had suffered the consequences of all the ways I could not or did not control how I appeared to men, and I had implanted that gaze inside myself.”

We all understand what Febos refers to; our cultural standards around beauty, gender, and sex are immensely painful for teen girls to navigate. Yet, we’ve done little to address the problem, and it’s much easier to blame tech for patriarchy’s evils. There are many things to panic about regarding social media, but if we’re concerned about teen girls’ mental health, we may need to look closer to home.