How bad is Instagram for the mental health of its younger users? It’s a hugely important question, especially with Facebook planning to release a version of the app for kids where a new report from the Wall Street Journal says the answer is “very poor,” based on internal research Facebook was not ready to share with the public. WSJ recently gained access to these in-depth studies, which paint a bleak picture of the harmful effects of Instagram on its younger users, especially teenage girls.
For this latter group, Instagram is a powerful engine of “social comparison” – when one judges an individual’s worth, attractiveness, and success based on comparisons with others. Pictures of perfect bodies on Instagram are often exposed by teenage girls, and they appear as ads, pictures in their feed, and content on the app’s Explore page. This often has a negative impact on the mental health of these users. As one slide from an internal Facebook presentation puts it: “We’re making body image issues worse for one in three teenage girls.” (The number refers to teens who actually reported body image problems of some sort.)
The report from the Wall Street Journal is worth reading in full, but here are some highlights from Facebook’s internal research on Instagram’s impact on younger users:
One Facebook study of teenage Instagram users in the US and UK found that more than 40 percent of those who reported feeling “unattractive” said feelings started when they used Instagram.
Research reviewed by senior Facebook executives concluded that Instagram is built toward a greater “social comparison” than competing apps such as TikTok and Snapchat. TikTok focuses more on performance and Snapchat on jokey filters that “keep the focus on the face.” And Instagram, by comparison, often highlights users’ bodies and lifestyles.
The teens told the Facebook researchers that they felt “addicted” to Instagram and wanted to check it out more often, but they didn’t have the self-control to rein in their use.
“Adolescents blame Instagram for increases in anxiety and depression,” said internal Facebook research in 2019 and that “this reaction was unconvincing 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 those motives could be traced back to the app.
These findings are significant in their own right, but become especially damned for Facebook when compared to the evasiveness of its public statements. As the Wall Street Journal notes, the company’s top executives, including CEO Mark Zuckerberg, have been questioned by politicians such as Senator Richard Blumenthal about the effects of its apps on younger users, but they haven’t disclosed anything like the detailed results generated from during her own internal studies.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the company told senators that its research was proprietary and “remained confidential to promote frank and open dialogue and brainstorming internally”.
Senator Blumenthal told WSJ in an email: “Facebook’s answers were so evasive – failing even to answer all of our questions – that they raise questions about what Facebook might be hiding.
Facebook has made attempts to deal with these issues with changes made to the Instagram user interface, but the company said that this change did not appear to have a significant impact.