The former Facebook employee and now whistleblower Frances Haugen this week testified before a U.S. Senate committee, accusing the company of ignoring the potential harm caused by its social media platforms.
“Facebook knows that they are leading young users to anorexia content,” Haugen told committee members. She said that despite the company’s claims that Instagram can help connect kids who may feel isolated, the rates of suicide and depression among teenagers is actually on the rise.
“The company’s leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer, but won’t make the necessary changes because they have put their astronomical profits before people,” said Haugen, who implored lawmakers to help solve the crisis.
Instagram May Worsen Body Image Issues, Increase Suicidal Thoughts
Leaked documents and internal presentations from Facebook Inc. on the potential harmful effects of its Instagram platform on teenage girls has spurred lawmakers to renew their campaign to halt the company’s plans to launch Instagram Youth, a version of the app for users younger than 13. Children are not allowed on the current app because of the federal privacy law that imposes requirements on websites or online services aimed at children under 13.
A September 14 Wall Street Journal story detailed how Facebook’s own research (the company acquired Instagram in 2012) has shown the app may be negatively impacting mental health and self-esteem, especially in teenage girls.
“Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse,” the researchers said in a spring 2020 slide presentation posted to Facebook’s internal message board. “Comparisons on Instagram can change how young women view and describe themselves.”
According to the report, Facebook has been researching the impact of Instagram on young users for the past three years and has consistently found that it can increase negative feelings and thoughts in some kids.
Slides and communications from inside Facebook included the following conclusions:
- “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls.”
- “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression. This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.”
- Among teens who reported suicidal thoughts, 13 percent of British users and 6 percent of American users traced the desire to kill themselves to Instagram.
The use of social media platforms, especially ones that are image-based, is associated with mental health issues such as feelings of low self-worth, insecurity, inadequacy, decreased self-esteem, body dissatisfaction, preoccupation with appearance, anxiety, depressed mood, and eating disturbances, says Linda Nicolotti, PhD, a pediatric psychologist with Brenner Children’s Hospital in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “Adolescent females, [who are] high utilizers of social media platforms, may be especially at risk for negative mental health issues related to social media use, but all genders are susceptible to negative effects,” she says.
Negative Comparisons Can Lead to Feelings of Unworthiness
There are a few reasons why teen girls may be more susceptible to the negative effects of social media, starting with some of the physical changes that happen during adolescence that can make girls more self-conscious and concerned about their appearance, says Dr. Nicolotti.
“Repeated exposure to carefully crafted and controlled images of their peers that do not reflect reality can have detrimental effects on young persons who are engaged in social comparison,” she says.
There’s also a strong need to “fit in” and be accepted by your peers during this time, says Nicolotti. “Adolescents may be highly influenced by their peers,” she says.
Teens May Have Trouble Setting Social Media Limits
The company found that although many young people recognized the negative impact of Instagram on their psyche, they often felt powerless to stop scrolling. According to the WSJ story, a researcher reported to colleagues, “Teens told us that they don’t like the amount of time they spend on the app but feel like they have to be present [on it]. They often feel ‘addicted’ and know that what they’re seeing is bad for their mental health but feel unable to stop themselves.”
Setting limits around social media — whether that’s the content they view or how long they are spending online — can be harder for teens, says Nicolotti.
Even if you’re trying to limit how much time you devote to looking at supermodels or influencers, the app’s algorithm may sabotage your efforts. Because of the way social media apps work, whatever you look at or “like” is what you’ll keep seeing, says Caroline Pitt, a PhD candidate at the University of Washington Information School in Seattle. Pitt’s area of research includes technology’s role in teen well-being.
“Like the social media platform TikTok, Instagram tends to put certain things in front of you based on what you’ve been liking, who you are following, and all of that,” she says.
That can be positive or negative, says Pitt. “It can increase good feelings — if you like pictures of cute dogs, then it will show you more pictures of cute dogs. But if you’re having a hard time with your body image, and you’re following a lot of super-skinny models, it will show you more of that, too,” she says.
Haugen discussed the algorithm in her 60 Minutes interview with the reporter Scott Pelley and how it can create a vicious cycle for girls in terms of body image and eating disorders. “What’s super tragic is that Facebook’s own research says as these young women begin to consume this eating-disorder content, they get more and more depressed and it actually makes them use the app more, and so they end up in this feedback cycle where they hate their bodies more and more,” Haugen told Pelley.
Social Media Can Shape Identity in Young Teens in a Good Way
The younger brain is hardwired to take risks, engage in new behaviors, and learn new things, all part of a process that can help young people figure out what behaviors have consequences, which can help shape their identity, says Sarah Adler, PsyD, a psychologist and a clinical associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford Medicine in Palo Alto, California.
“Social media presents a large reference data set that can impact their sense of identity, self-worth, and belonging in ways that are positive and negative. For example, looking at photoshopped pictures of idealized bodies can definitely lead folks to compare themselves negatively, causing stress and anxiety,” she says. “It’s also true that watching a group of like-minded political activists can help people feel connected to others that share their values, which can drive positive political action. We don’t have a lot of evidence to support who will be impacted in which direction,” Dr. Adler says.
It would be bad science to blame social media as the sole reason for the anxiety and depression of teens, she says. “It’s important to acknowledge that mental health conditions develop because of a complex set of biological, social, and psychological factors, such as intergenerational trauma, poverty, and biological predispositions,” she says.
We shouldn’t overlook the fact that social media can be a force for good, she says. “Well-designed digital communities on Facebook and Instagram have been lifelines for marginalized communities like teens of color and LGBTQ youth who are subject to isolation, stigma, and violence.”
Expert Tips on How to Help Your Teen Use Social Media
Over 70 percent of young people are using social media, so fighting it isn’t the answer, says Adler. “Teaching mindfulness about what types of interactions feel good and what types make us feel bad can be incredibly useful for younger folks to help them learn to self-monitor. The same kinds of discussions that you would have with your child about what makes a good friend, or what makes a good social interaction, can apply to social media,” she says.
Encourage your teen to look at what they see, hear, and read with a critical eye, says Adler. “It’s important for parents and schools to openly discuss how social media may impact our minds and bodies, the same way that we would discuss other things we ingest, whether it be the news, food, or drugs and alcohol.”
There are good resources available that provide parents with guidance on the latest apps and websites, such as the nonprofit organization Common Sense Media, says Pitt. The site provides answers to common questions about social-media use for children, adolescents, and older teens, and features articles on topics such as sexting, protecting privacy and data, and how to spot fake news.
Often your local library is a good source of information on social media and how to use it, says Pitt. “Youth librarians have a lot of knowledge about what kids are interested in and what they are doing online,” she says.