We’ve heard, anecdotally, that social media platforms can harm our mental health. While research on the topic has been mixed, sometimes suggesting major mental health issues and other times not as much, it turns out that researchers inside Instagram have been studying the mental health impacts that Instagram use has on the mental health and body image of teenage girls, and their data points to some serious problems.
According to The Wall Street Journal, Instagram, which Facebook Inc. owns, isn’t oblivious to how the platform can negatively impact teens’ mental health. Researchers have been studying how scrolling through the app affects the platform’s younger users for the past three years.
And the results have shown time and again that the photo-sharing app has been harmful for teen girls.
“We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,” one slide from a 2019 Facebook internal message board said, according to The Wall Street Journal. “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression,” said another slide. “This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.”
Just how bad does the app make teen girls feel? “Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse,” the researchers reported in March 2020. “Comparisons on Instagram can change how young women view and describe themselves.”
While the reports show that the company is very aware of how the app impacts kids, the company routinely dismisses the negative points. In public, The Wall Street Journal says, Facebook has “consistently played down the app’s negative effects on teens.” On top of this, the company “hasn’t made its research public or available to academics or lawmakers who have asked for it.
Instead, the company touts the opposite, that there are considerable benefits to teens using social media. The truth is probably more nuanced than the company publicly suggests, as evidenced by their own research. However, that’s not the message they’re sharing.
“The research that we’ve seen is that using social apps to connect with other people can have positive mental health benefits,” Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, said regarding kids and mental health while at a congressional hearing in March 2021.
We know that Instagram isn’t the only social sharing app that teen girls are using. And that’s reflected in the data as well. But, there’s something different about Instagram that has more impact on the group than other platforms like Snapchat or TikTok.
“Social comparison is worse on Instagram,” Facebook’s deep data dive into teen girl body-image issues in 2020 states, adding that TikTok is grounded and focused on performance, while users are often sheltered by funny filters that “keep the focus on the face.” Instagram, though, it’s different since that app focuses primarily on lifestyle and the body – and the features that harm teen girls the most are the core of the app’s purpose.
Of course, we can’t blame Instagram or Facebook for all the ails that teen girls in particular deal with. Issues with body and mental health struggles have been around for a long time. However, they’re amplified both in the message and the content fueling the internal fire, which we must be aware of. So, we can have conversations with our kids, open that dialogue, and find ways to support our teens in fostering a positive, healthy body image.