How bad is Instagram for the mental health of its young users? This is an extremely important question, especially with Facebook planning to launch a version of the app for children.
A new report from The Wall Street Journal suggests the answer is “pretty bad,” based on internal research conducted by Facebook that it was unwilling to share with the public. The WSJ recently has had access to these in-depth studies, which paint a grim picture of the detrimental effects Instagram has on its young users, especially teenage girls.
For the latter group, Instagram is a powerful engine of “social comparison” – when one judges one’s own worth, attractiveness and success based on comparisons with others. Teenage girls are often bombarded with idealized body images on Instagram, appearing as ads, images in their feeds, and content on the app’s Explore page. This often has a negative effect on the mental health of these users. As a slide from an internal Facebook presentation put it, “We make body image problems worse for one in three teenage girls. (The number refers to teens who have previously reported body image issues of some type.)
The report of The Wall Street Journal It’s worth reading in its entirety, but here are some highlights from Facebook’s internal research on Instagram’s effect on young users:
- A Facebook study of teenage Instagram users in the US and UK found that over 40% of those who said they felt “unattractive” said the feelings started while using from Instagram.
- Research reviewed by senior Facebook executives concluded that Instagram was designed for greater “social comparison” than rival apps like TikTok and Snapchat. TikTok is more about performance and Snapchat is more about jokey filters that “keep the focus on the face”. Instagram, in comparison, highlights users’ bodies and lifestyles more often.
- The teens told Facebook researchers that they felt “addicted” to Instagram and wanted to check it less often, but lacked the self-control to restrict their use.
- “Teens accuse Instagram of being responsible for the increased rates of anxiety and depression,” Facebook internal research presented in 2019 said, and that “this reaction was spontaneous and consistent across all groups.”
- Facebook found that among teens who reported having suicidal thoughts, 13% of UK users and 6% of US users said those impulses could be traced back to the app.
Such conclusions are important in themselves, but become particularly damning for Facebook in relation to the evasiveness of its public statements. As the WSJ Note, senior executives at the company, including CEO Mark Zuckerberg, have been asked by politicians like Sen. Richard Blumenthal about the effects of its apps on young users, but have not disclosed anything like the detailed results created through its own internal studies. According to WSJ, the company told senators that its research was proprietary and was “kept confidential to promote frank and open dialogue and internal brainstorming.”
Senator Blumenthal told the WSJ in an email: “Facebook’s responses were so evasive – without even answering all of our questions – that they really raise questions about what Facebook might be hiding […] Facebook appears to be taking a page from the Big Tobacco manual – targeting teens with potentially dangerous products while hiding the science in public.
Facebook attempted to address these issues by modifying Instagram’s user interface, such as an experiment to hide the counts (a measure teens told Facebook made them anxious). But the company said the change didn’t seem to be having much of an effect.
“It turned out that it didn’t really change as much about… how people felt or how much they used the experience as we thought,” Instagram chief Adam Mosseri told the journalists in May. “But it ended up being quite polarizing. Some people really liked it, and some didn’t. Instead of rolling out the change to all users, Instagram kept the default accounts, but gave users the option to turn them off.