How bad is social media for the mental health of younger people? A new report from The Wall Street Journal suggests the answer is “pretty bad,” based on internal research conducted by Facebook that it’s been unwilling to share with the public. The WSJ recently got access to these in-depth studies, exposing the detrimental effects Instagram has on the kids who use it — particularly teenage girls.
Teen girls constantly use Instagram as a “social comparison,” where they judge their own values, attractiveness, and success by comparing them to others online. An influx of images showing perfect bodies and beauty standards are all over Instagram’s ads, the Explore page and on their feeds.
A slide from an internal Facebook presentation read: “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls.” (The figure referred to teenagers who already reported body image issues of some type.) Facebook, which owns Instagram, has a plan to launch a version of the app for children.
The report from Facebook’s internal research found that more than 40 percent of those who reported feeling “unattractive” said the feelings started when using Instagram.
Research reviewed by Facebook’s top executives concluded that Instagram was engineered towards greater “social comparison” than rival apps like TikTok and Snapchat. TikTok is more focused on performance and Snapchat on jokey filters that “keep the focus on the face.” Instagram, by comparison, spotlights users’ bodies and lifestyles more often.
Teens told Facebook’s researchers that they felt “addicted” to Instagram and wanted to check it less often, but didn’t have the self-control to rein in their usage. “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression,” said internal research by Facebook presented in 2019, and that “this reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.”
Facebook found that among teens who said they had suicidal thoughts, 13 percent of UK users and 6 percent of US users said these impulses could be tracked back to the app.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been evasive when it came to sharing public statements of the app’s impact on young users, calling their internal research proprietary and “kept confidential to promote frank and open dialogue and brainstorming internally.”
Senator Richard Blumenthal told the WSJ in an email: “Facebook’s answers were so evasive — failing to even respond to all our questions — that they really raise questions about what Facebook might be hiding […] Facebook seems to be taking a page from the textbook of Big Tobacco —targeting teens with potentially dangerous products while masking the science in public.”
Facebook’s attempt at dealing with these issues include hiding likes, but the company admits this change didn’t seem to have much of an affect.
“It turned out that it didn’t actually change nearly as much about … how people felt, or how much they used the experience as we thought it would,” Instagram chief Adam Mosseri told reporters in May. “But it did end up being pretty polarizing. Some people really liked it, and some people really didn’t.” Instead of rolling out the change to all users, Instagram kept like counts on by default but gave users the option to turn them off.