Last month, the Wall Street Journal published a series of articles on the inner workings of Facebook, the social media behemoth that also owns Instagram. The revelations it uncovered were embarrassing for the company, some might say horrifying.
Perhaps the biggest bombshell was this: Despite public proclamations to the contrary, Facebook’s own research showed that Instagram hurts the mental health of many teens, especially teen girls.
The reality wasn’t particularly hidden or hard to suss out. Apparently, a 2019 internal research report said baldly, “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls.” Another internal Facebook document said, “Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse. … Comparisons on Instagram can change how young women view and describe themselves.”
The fact that Instagram can negatively impact a teen’s self-worth is not news, of course. Experts have known it and independent research has suggested it for years. We at Plugged In have been talking about the dangers for a long time now, including dedicating a whole podcast to it. Late last month, Emily Clark wrote a blog about the damaging impact of Instagram filters, which will also be part of the discussion on this week’s episode of The Plugged In Show podcast (available on Thursday)
But you’d never know it from listening to Instagram and Facebook officials themselves. This May, according to Tech Crunch, Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri said that any negative impact the platform had on teens was “quite small.” Keep in mind, Mosseri said this well after Facebook’s own research showed the impact was quite large.
This is a pretty serious breach of trust. But what makes it, in my opinion, exponentially worse is that Facebook had planned to push a version of Instagram to kids under the age of 13—a demographic even more susceptible to social media’s influence.
Late last month, just days after the Wall Street Journal’s revelations were published, Instagram pushed paused on that effort, sometimes colloquially called “Instagram Kids.” Wrote Mosseri in a series of tweets:
This experience was never meant for kids. We were designing an experience for tweens (10-12yo), and it was never going to be the same as Instagram today. Parents approve tween accounts and have oversight over who they follow, who follows them, who messages them, time spent etc. … But the project leaked way before we knew what it would be. People feared the worst, and we had few answers at that stage. Recent WSJ reporting caused even greater concern. It’s clear we need to take more time on this.
Listen, I’m not going to sit here and say that Facebook and Instagram are wholly evil, and that any interaction with the platforms is bad. Both can provide welcome connectivity with friends, family and even organizations that share your interests. Plugged In has a presence on both Facebook and Instagram, and we connect with a lot of you in ways we’d never be able to otherwise.
But that doesn’t make Facebook—or any social media platform—our friend. And both teens and their parents need to remember that. Be mindful that just as you and your kids use social media, social media companies use you. They know that you’re more likely to use their platforms (and use them more frequently) if you believe that they’re good and honest and are only interested in what’s best for those that use them.
But evidence suggests that such platforms are interested, primarily, in what’s best for them—the platforms themselves. And if a third of their users suffer along the way? Well, perhaps that’s just fine.
Be sure to check out Plugged In’s own Parents Guide to Today’s Technology for more on social media platforms like Instagram, and how parents can best navigate their dangers.