Last week, the day after Instagram co-hosted the Met Gala, the Wall Street Journal released a damning story exposing the social media network’s long-standing knowledge of its harmful impact on teenage girls.
A leaked internal report explicitly showed Instagram’s own in-depth research on how the app affects the mental health of teens - which no one will be surprised to hear is not well.
According to the Wall Street Journal, a March 2020 slide presentation posted to Facebook’s (the company that owns Instagram) internal message board said that, “32 percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.”
It acknowledged Instagram’s impact on increasing the rate of anxiety and depression, and impacted negatively on self-esteem and body image. An earlier internal report from 2019 said, “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls’”.
Following the newspaper’s bombshell story, Instagram’s head of public policy Karina Newton, published a public response that explored the company’s use of “research to improve your experience”. Unsurprisingly, she said that Instagram stood by their research, and said that the story “focused on a limited set of findings and casts them in a negative light”. She also acknowledged both the benefits and risks of social media.
“Issues like negative social comparison and anxiety exist in the world, so they’re going to exist on social media too,” Karina wrote. “That doesn’t change the fact that we take these findings seriously, and we set up a specific effort to respond to this research and change Instagram for the better.”
Another page in an internal report, according to the Wall Street Journal, said that some issues were specific to Instagram as a platform, including social comparison. “Aspects of Instagram exacerbate each other to create a perfect storm.”
Over the weekend Instagram’s head of fashion Eva Chen was asked by a follower for her reaction, and in an Instagram Story said that she had not yet read the full article and never saw the original research.
“...but as someone who worked at a teen magazine and wrote articles about eating disorders and as someone who is deeply invested in teens, I think there's a responsibility on all of us (platform and as individual people) to do better for teens,” Eva wrote. “And to keep it real on platforms in general. No one has a perfect life, show the real stuff.”
Regardless of Instagram’s spin in the face of criticism, it’s 2021: we all must acknowledge the unique issues that social media platforms like Instagram raise, and the multi-billion dollar companies behind them need to accept that they are complicit in this. As users, we can demand that these businesses take accountability for the impact of their algorithms - whether it’s in perpetuating fake news, hosting hate speech or knowingly being a toxic platform that fosters mental health issues.
This isn’t just an issue for teen girls. Even as grown ass woman, the endless scroll of highly curated and edited images of Instagram can make you feel like utter shit.
Part of the problem, according to a bleak Time story written in response to WSJ’s reporting, is that the issues are essentially tied directly to Instagram’s identity. They referenced a tweet in response to the original story from Samidh Chakrabarti, who until recently worked at Facebook as the head of civic engagement and integrity, with an interest in the societal impact of technology.
“Not sure greed is the root cause on this one,” he shared. “Could just be that a system that encourages visual sharing unintentionally creates a prestige economy that is detrimental to the vulnerable.”
It’s a complicated conversation, but as our lives become even more ‘extremely online’ and the age of those joining these social media apps continues to drop (in March it was revealed that Facebook was developing an Instagram service for kids), it is an essential one.
We wanted to hear directly from some teenagers who live in Aotearoa for their thoughts on some of the issues raised in the report. We asked five teens from different backgrounds, ranging in age from 12 to 18, about their own complex relationships with social media - and their answers are eye-opening.
* Names have been changed
Editor's note: On October 5, former Facebook employee Frances Haugen spoke to 60 Minutes and revealed that she was the whistleblower who leaked the above report. Watch her interview here.
Are there specific things that you see on there that make you feel bad about yourself?
Penny, 18: For me personally, seeing celebrities or influencers such as models tend to affect me negatively. Although they have every right to post photos of themselves where they are beautiful and confident, it is still difficult as a teenage girl to be constantly consuming this type of media.
Kate, 15: Typically posts from models or fitness influencers with features or bodies that I don't have, and where all of the comments are praising these aspects of them that are essentially unattainable.
Olivia, 15: You do come across some things that don't make you feel so great. For example, a lot of things on my explore page are about dieting and calorie counting for food swaps to lose weight. This doesn't make you feel especially great because it makes you think whether you should be doing those things even if you have never thought about it before.
Alice, 12: Seeing other people that fit the current beauty standards (small waists, big boobs) and then feeling like you don't fit into that and you are not good enough or you're not enough.
Lauren, 18: Conventionally attractive girls. Everyone has insecurities, so I feel rather mean pointing out girls who just happen to fit the beauty standard (i.e. slim, hourglass figure, long legs, smooth skin, etc.), but they do make me feel worse about myself. Even pics as innocent as OOTD’s make me feel bad because ‘those clothes would never sit on my body like that’. I only follow influencers with features that I have so they don’t make me feel as bad as others do.
Do you talk about this with your friends at all and come up with strategies together? (ie not using filters or editing programs, agreeing not to comment on appearances, unfollowing people/influencers who make you feel bad)
Penny, 18: I would say yes. My friends and I all try to bring one another up instead of pushing each other down. We try to have conversations that don’t relate to appearance, but we still engage in a healthy amount of positive appearance-based conversations. If someone is feeling down about what they saw online, we urge them to unfollow and don’t feed into it.
Kate, 15: My friends and I have talked a lot about the negative impacts on our body image and self-esteem caused by social media, because it's something that we can all relate to and understand and something that affects us almost every day. We often all try to unfollow or block accounts that make us feel bad about ourselves to make sure our feed is just our friends or peers, things that interest us and things that empower us.
Olivia, 15: I definitely see issues in it amongst my peers in the sense that they are worried about their body image from the models that they see on Instagram and their platforms showing their eating habits and what they eat in a day - which can be good to watch sometimes, but it can also make you feel bad about yourself if you don't have the same eating habits as them.
Alice, 12: No, I think we all feel kinda awkward about talking about things like this. At the same time when we are online it can feel like a competition of who is the prettiest and stuff like that :/
I don't unfollow people because they make me feel bad, probably because the people I do follow, I like for more than their appearance. I did unfollow Kim Kardashian recently because I think she is boring.
Lauren, 18: We have talked about it… it’s hard to come up with long-lasting strategies because there’s only so much you can do. If it’s something we can fix (e.g. unfollowing a toxic influencer), we fix it. If not, our assurance and support for one another is all we can offer. My friends and I often discuss body image and what might bother us online, though this can be difficult at times because we can be emotionally constipated.
Do you see issues in it among your peers?
Penny, 18: I think all teenage girls struggle with their bodies in one way or another. Some more than others, which I have definitely seen firsthand. Being a teenage girl is a difficult, challenging time in life and the best thing we can do is look out for each other and build a body-positive environment.
Kate, 15: I see a lot of issues surrounding the use of social media and aspects of it that make people insecure affecting my friends. I think we've all compared ourselves to edited and posed photos that crop up on our feed or explore page, because it's really hard to remember that social media is just a highlight reel of that particular person's best moments.
Alice, 12: I can tell that some of my friends are insecure and seeing things on Instagram like tips on how to get skinny etc. doesn't really help :c
Lauren, 18: Definitely, body image issues catalysed by social media has unsurprisingly exacerbated mental health. Especially with eating disorders.
Do you think Instagram should be doing more to address teen mental health, particularly around body image? What do you think they could be doing better?
Penny, 18: I think that Instagram removing ‘Likes’ was a big step forward, but there is still a lot to be done. Instagram is a very large platform, and it could be vital in removing the stigma around mental health and body image.
Kate, 15: I think ideally, Instagram could do a lot more to help teen body image and mental health, but it's really difficult because it's hard to know what might trigger one person and what might slip the mind of another person. The only thing that Instagram could do would be to hide or restrict certain content or pages, but again it just has to be a personal judgement call whether something like a model's mirror selfie is harmful or innocent.
Olivia, 15: I feel like Instagram could do more for helping teens with the things they see just by filtering it or putting stricter categories on explore pages so you only see the things that you're looking in the category, and you only have to see what you want to. They do have loose categories if you're wanting to search for something specific or a trend that's going around, but you still see a lot of unwanted stuff popping up on your regular unfiltered explore page.
Alice, 12: Yes definitely! They should have more accounts and ads targeted at raising awareness about problems we have. They could watch what other people post and take down photos/storys/reels that can trigger people. Of course they can't just take down photos that make one person feel insecure because that would be unfair to the person who posted it but there could be more body positive things or things about mental health.
Lauren, 18: Yes. I immediately took advantage of the option to hide like counts, but I imagine there is a lot more they could be doing better if they have the resources and care as much as they say they do.
What positive changes would you like to see on social media?
Penny, 18: I would like to see more informative resources on mental health, learning to love yourself, and projecting that love onto others. Educating yourself and those around you on mental health is extremely important.
Kate, 15: A positive change that I would like to see on social media is more public figures or influencers using their platforms to spark social change. If everyone, whether they have a huge following or under 100 followers, tried to educate people on important issues through their stories and their posts it would give social media a use that doesn't make millions of people feel bad about themselves.
Alice, 12: Maybe make their community guidelines more stricter so people don't get triggered with what they see like when images are photoshopped to unrealistic standards.
Lauren, 18: To combat something as large and significant as body image issues, a collective change in celebrating/ normalising human ‘faults’ in our bodies would be ideal. Stop perpetuating toxic standards.
What elements of social media are positive?
Penny, 18: I use social media because it allows me to stay in touch with friends and family, which is a very important aspect of my wellbeing. Along with that, I also enjoy using it to focus on topics that I enjoy - like fashion, wellbeing and positivity.
Kate, 15: People showing a more realistic side of themselves. It's so refreshing to see a celebrity or an influencer or even just a peer posting a photo that isn't necessarily the best angle or the best pose - but is just what they really look like. Another thing is when people repost infographics or petitions to help communities or educate other people. I think that's a really effective use of an online platform.
Olivia, 15: Instagram does have a positive side too - it is good for talking and communicating with friends and sharing what you've been up to. A lot of Instagram influencers are also fun to watch and follow and it can just be great to see how everyone's doing and seeing the things they choose to share with others.
Alice, 12: People can express who they are, and it can inspire creativity!
Lauren, 18: Eh, I’m undecided.