Facebook Knew Instagram Could Be Damaging to Teens
The tech giant has studied how the app affects youth.
Posted September 17, 2021 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
- An article in The Wall Street Journal reports that Facebook's own documents found Instagram to be damaging to teens.
- A 2017 survey, published by the U.K.’s Royal Society for Public Health, found Instagram to be “worst social media network for mental health."
- Seeing others “edited to perfection” can be challenging for teens who may struggle with self-esteem or are vulnerable to social approval.
When one of my daughters was about 13 years old, I took her to a Teen Vogue event at our local mall. Afterward, she started getting a Teen Vogue magazine in the mail each month. One Saturday morning she walked into the kitchen with a stack of them and asked, “Will you please take these away? I don’t think looking at pictures of perfect girls is good for me.”
This incident predates Instagram, the social media network owned by Facebook that enjoys 500 million+ active users daily and is used by 76 percent of U.S. teens. Whereas my daughter was troubled by perhaps a few dozen images in a magazine she might have leafed through once or twice a month, today’s teens are literally barraged with such images daily—some even spend hours a day using this app.
What brought the memory of my daughter back was a recent article in The Wall Street Journal titled, “Facebook Knows Instagram Is Toxic for Teen Girls, Company Documents Show.” The article reports that “(f)or the past three years, Facebook has been conducting studies into how its photo-sharing app affects its millions of young users.” Facebook’s own researchers “found that Instagram is harmful for a sizable percentage of them, most notably teenage girls.”
By reviewing internal documents produced by Instagram (Facebook), The Wall Street Journal's reporters found these statements in a company slide presentation from 2019: “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls” and “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression… This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.”
Perhaps the most disturbing revelation in the WSJ article was this:
“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, one presentation showed.”
This News is Not New
To me, what’s most irritating about this revelation is that it’s old news. While writing my book a few years ago, I referenced a 2017 #StatusOfMind survey, published by the United Kingdom’s Royal Society for Public Health, that predates and mirrors Facebook’s own findings. Surveying almost 1,500 teens and young adults, the study found Instagram (along with Snapchat, Facebook, and Twitter) to be associated with high levels of depression, bullying, and FOMO, the “fear of missing out.” Instagram, where personal photos or selfies (often carefully staged or touched up) rule, was discovered to be “the worst social media network for mental health and well-being.” A teen respondent to the survey wrote, “Instagram easily makes girls and women feel as if their bodies aren’t good enough, as people add filters and edit their pictures in order for them to look ‘perfect.’”
“Instagram culture creates an environment that rewards perfection,” says Dr. Pamela Rutledge, Director of the Media Psychology Research Center. According to Rutledge:
“The trouble is, when people look, they forget that many of these images are not real and it creates unattainable expectations and beauty ideals. Our brains are wired to react as if virtual images were real. We are hardwired to compare ourselves to others. This had some evolutionary benefit as it was how people learned to navigate the social environment. It has little benefit on social media when we use it to judge ourselves against imaginary, often unattainable goals. This is particularly harmful to teens who already struggle with self-esteem and are vulnerable to social approval.”
Photoshop is So Five Minutes Ago
Today, a digitally perfect body or face is just a few clicks away, thanks to the ubiquity and ease of use of new “editing” apps. One of the most popular is “Facetune.” According to its own website, Facetune is the #1 self-editing app in the world, used by over 100 million worldwide. With this app, users can “(s)mooth skin, whiten teeth, swipe away blemishes, contour features, add makeup…” and more.
Facetune, which experienced a 20 percent increase in usage at the start of the pandemic, sees 1 million to 1.5 million retouched photos exported every single day. It is so widely used that the word itself is used interchangeably with “edit… in much the same way “Photoshop” was used by the generation before.
According to the study “Selfies-Living in the Era of Filtered Photographs,” a direct correlation exists between the proliferation of digitally manipulated selfies and body dysmorphic disorder, an under-diagnosed mental health condition causing sufferers to obsess over minor or imagined defects in their appearance. Researchers at Boston University who conducted the study warn that Facetune and similar apps “are making us lose touch with reality because we expect to look perfectly primped and filtered in real life as well,” which can cause serious psychological harm.
What exacerbates the situation further is the Instagram (Facebook) algorithm. It feeds users more of what it thinks they like or have expressed interest in. In other words, if a teen looks at health, beauty, diet, or similar posts, they are likely to be bombarded with more of the same kinds of posts every time they open the app.
What Can Parents Do?
Don’t wait for your daughter (or son) to walk into the kitchen asking you to take Instagram away. Chances are that’s not going to happen because the app isn’t just feeding them images that might promote self-loathing—teens are also using it in a myriad of (and sometimes really awesome) ways. They might be communicating with friends, sharing life updates, learning about current events, sharing inspiring or funny images, or advocating for causes they care about. There is even an ever-growing community of Instagram users with huge followings who are calling attention to touched-up content and unattainable images of beauty. One of my favorites is @beauty.false who has over 1.2M followers. If you have an Instagram-using teen, ask them if they have heard of or follow this or similar accounts.
Finally, if you need a checklist to help you address this problem, here’s a very short and easy-to-follow list:
- Spend a little time exploring Instagram yourself, but remember what you see has been curated specifically for you.
- Talk to your teen about Instagram.
- Listen (non-judgmentally) to what your teen has to say about Instagram.
“Status of Mind: Social Media and Young People’s Mental Health and Wellbeing,” Royal Society for Public Health (2017).
Rajanala S, Maymone MBC, Vashi NA. Selfies-Living in the Era of Filtered Photographs. JAMA Facial Plast Surg. 2018 Dec 1;20(6):443-444. doi: 10.1001/jamafacial.2018.0486. PMID: 30073294.