“Social media is detrimental to mental health.” If you read a headline like this, you’d probably think, well, what’s new in that, right? Because there isn’t. But after the Wall Street Journal reported, on 14th September, on Facebook’s internal research findings on Instagram, teenagers’ mental health issues worldwide is up as a serious discourse.
To put it bluntly: Facebook has known for years—in harrowing detail—that its product has been harming teenagers, especially girls.
The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) managed to get their hands on Facebook’s in-depth research,—that they have been unwilling to share with the public—which was conducted internally on Instagram’s effect on teens. According to the report, the authors of the presentation wrote, “Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.”
Similarly, a slide from an internal Facebook presentation from 2019 reads, “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls.” (Note: The figure was in reference to teenagers who already reported body image issues.)
According to the same report, for teenagers,—especially girls—Instagram works as a powerful tool for “social comparison.” The Psychology Today website describes Social Comparison Theory as “the idea that individuals determine their own social and personal worth based on how they stack up against others.”
Teenage girls’ Instagram accounts are frequently bombarded with (mostly highly edited) photos of idealized bodies as advertisements or from accounts in their feeds or the Explore page. This often negatively impacts the user’s mental health. So, essentially, by looking at Instagram images and ads, teenagers judge their own attractiveness, value, and success.
Furthermore, one of Facebook’s studies conducted on teens in the US and UK found that over 40% of those who reported feeling “unattractive” felt so after they had started using Instagram. Reviewed by top executives at Facebook, the research concluded that Instagram was designed focusing more on social comparison, as compared to rivals TikTok and Snapchat.
The research, in relation to teenage girls, said that “They often feel ‘addicted’ and know that what they’re seeing is bad for their mental health but feel unable to stop themselves.”
Another finding is a testimony to the app’s adverse effects on teenagers’ mental wellbeing: Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression and the reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.
What Has Facebook Done?
Responding to the WSJ expose, head of public policy at Instagram, Karina Newton, wrote, “Many find it helpful one day, and problematic the next. Many said Instagram makes things better or has no effect, but some, particularly those who were already feeling down, said Instagram may make things worse.”
Previously, Facebook has tried to deal with some of these issues by tweaking Instagram’s user interface, such as the experiment it ran, hiding the “like counts” (something that teens told Facebook makes them anxious). However, instead of rolling out the change to all users, by default, the like counts were kept on but users had the option to turn them off manually. This didn’t seem to have much effect, according to the company.
“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 media reporters in May. “But it did end up being pretty polarizing. Some people really liked it, and some people really didn’t.”
Instagram Compared to Nicotine, Alcohol
Recently, actor Jonah Hill referred to Instagram as the “cigarettes of this time” and also “the biggest killer.” And just like Hill, many people, including experts, have likened the platform’s “addictiveness” to similar substances. The Atlantic writes, “Like booze, social media seems to offer an intoxicating cocktail of dopamine, disorientation, and, for some, dependency. Call it ‘attention alcohol.’”
Last year, longtime Facebook executive Andrew Bosworth wrote in a memo on the company’s internal network: “…while Facebook may not be nicotine I think it is probably like sugar. Sugar is delicious and for most of us there is a special place for it in our lives. But like all things it benefits from moderation.”
But these comparisons are not limited to critics only. In 2020, Facebook’s products were equated to a mildly addictive depressant—by the company’s very own users, as reported by The Atlantic.
All this information combined with the recent revelations point towards the urgency with which the matter should be treated. But the question remains: how. Could looking at social media like drugs or alcohol be the start to much-needed reform? As The Atlantic says, the social infrastructure around alcohol, such as mentions of limited and responsible consumption in marketing, should perhaps serve as a guide for social media, which is proving to have similar effects on its users.
But the responsibility of moderation, as is with any of the aforementioned substances, would ultimately lie in the hands—quite literally—of social media users, with culture playing an important role in the awareness and acceptance of this dark side.
Clearly, the inclusion of words such as “fomo” and “doomscrolling” into the dictionary and acknowledging them as phenomena is not enough anymore. It’s time that reformative vocabulary and social cues related to healthier social media habits are made part of the digital collective consciousness, just like social media is.