Experts say we might only be starting to understand the dangers Instagram poses to teenage girls. Paired with the recent intel unearthed by a former employee of Facebook (now called Meta), which owns Instagram, it’s a damning indictment of the photo-sharing app.
On Instagram, “harm is occurring on a massive scale,” social psychologist Jonathan Haidt lays out in a blistering article in The Atlantic. The statistics are worrying, he says, and Instagram is the clearest culprit.
“Instagram, which displaces other forms of interaction among teens, puts the size of their friend group on public display, and subjects their physical appearance to the hard metrics of likes and comment counts, takes the worst parts of middle school and glossy women’s magazines and intensifies them,” Haidt writes.
He doesn’t think regulators should wait to take action against social media giants.
“If Americans do nothing until researchers can show beyond a reasonable doubt that Instagram and its owner, Facebook… are hurting teen girls, these platforms might never be held accountable and the harm could continue indefinitely,” he writes.
There are a variety of harmful aspects to Instagram, an app that allows users to post their own photos and short videos, and to see posts from friends, brands and celebrities. There’s also an Explore page, curated with suggestions based on users’ interests. The biggest culprit is damage the app can do to young girls’ body image. Facebook’s internal research, which was leaked to the Wall Street Journal by a whistleblower in September, found that one in three girls felt worst about their bodies when they used Instagram.
Boys feel pressure, too — 14 per cent of American boys said they felt worse about themselves after using the app. But girls are particularly affected in part because they’re the main users: according to Pew Research, girls are more likely to use visually-oriented social media platforms, including Snapchat, Pinterest and Tumblr in addition to Instagram — 61 per cent of girls use Instagram, compared to 44 per cent of boys. And more than 40 per cent of Instagram’s users are 22 or younger.
That online exposure has real-world consequences. Hospital admissions for self-harm doubled for girls between 10 and 14 from 2010 and 2014, at a time when there was no significant increase for boys, men, or women in their early 20s. This is true in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K.
Instagram had been ranked the worst all for young people’s mental health in polls as far back as 2017. One of its other worst qualities, according the Journal, is the way it invites users to compare their own bodies, or their own lives, to what they see on the app. The Explore feature is especially problematic in that it tracks what users look up and feeds it back to them. This can be great, like when fans of an artist or a meme page are exposed to similar artists, or similar humour accounts. But it can also be damaging, like when a young girl looks at one fitness influencer, and is gradually shown more and more accounts dedicated to weight loss or impossible bodies, leading down to a rabbit hole of disordered eating content.
And Facebook knows all this, but refuses to make significant changes, according to Frances Haugen. The former Facebook employee spoke to and shared internal documents with the Wall Street Journal anonymously, but later revealed her identity.
“The thing I saw at Facebook over and over again was there were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook,” Haugen told CBS in a 60 Minutes interview. “And Facebook, over and over again, chose to optimize for its own interests, like making more money.”
Of Instagram, the damage is especially significant, she said. “What’s super tragic is Facebook’s own research says, as these young women begin to consume… this eating disorder content, they get more and more depressed. And it actually makes them use the app more,” Haugen said. “And so, they end up in this feedback cycle where they hate their bodies more and more. Facebook’s own research says it is not just the Instagram is dangerous for teenagers, that it harms teenagers, it’s that it is distinctly worse than other forms of social media.”
Of course Instagram is hardly the only source of body pressure young girls face.
“To some extent, the way these dynamics play out on Instagram is just a natural extension of how girls are treated in our culture anyway,” Lindsay Crouse writes in The New York Times. But it’s the most powerful tool of body pressure, more omnipresent than any one movie star or women’s magazine. And as Crouse points out, it’s telling that many Silicon Valley executives don’t let their own children use the technology they develop.
One of Facebook’s internal memos, Haidt writes in The Atlantic, points specifically to the dilemma parents face. “Parents can’t understand and don’t know how to help,” one report says. “Today’s parents came of age in a time before smartphones and social media, but social media has fundamentally changed the landscape of adolescence.”
While the app limits users who are under 13, many younger children sign up. One Canadian parent said she let her then-12-year-old daughter get an account, because she recognized that denying her access would result in her social isolation at school.
“Her friends who don’t have it say to their parents: ‘We don’t know what anyone’s talking about because we’re the only people who aren’t on Instagram,’” Toronto mom Melissa Marazzi told HuffPost Canada in 2018. “Everybody’s going: ‘Did you see that post, did you see this post?’ They feel so removed from everyone.”
Part of the problem, too, is the nature of social media itself. “We have to acknowledge the broader point that Instagram and other social media apps are designed to keep people using them for as many hours as possible, because that’s how they make the most money,” Jean Twenge, who collected data with Haidt for the article in The Atlantic, told Time Magazine. “That means you’re going to have a collision between what’s good for mental health and what’s good for profit.”
Haidt ends his piece by calling for governmental regulations. “If public officials do nothing, the current experiment will keep running—to Facebook’s benefit and teen girls’ detriment,” he writes. “The preponderance of the evidence is damning.”
This kind of report on social media led to cosmetics brand Lush shuttering its Instagram, Facebook, TikTok and Snapchat accounts. (The brand is still active on Twitter and YouTube.) Lush’s “global presence across these platforms will remain deactivated until the platforms take action to provide a safer environment for users,” the company said in a press release Monday.
“In the same way that evidence against climate change was ignored and belittled for decades, concerns about the serious effects of social media are barely being acknowledged.”