Instagram Is Awful for the Mental Health of Teenage Girls, but Facebook Won’t Admit It

Instagram makes body image issues worse for one in three teenage girls, according to leaked internal Facebook documents

Instagram Is Awful for the Mental Health of Teenage Girls, but Facebook Won’t Admit It
Photo:Manan VATSYAYANA / AFP (Getty Images)

Even though Facebook is aware of the negative impact Instagram has on the mental health and body image of teenage girls, the company is still planning to build an Instagram specifically designed for children.

A new Wall Street Journal report shows that the company has done significant internal research which confirms that its platform worsens body image issues in teenage girls. WSJ reviewed leaked internal documents from Instagram which show that beginning in 2019, Facebook has done focus groups, large-scale surveys, and diary studies to examine how Instagram as a platform affects the mental health of teens. The results have been unambiguous, but Facebook continues to

A Facebook study of teens in the U.S. and U.K. found that over 40 percent of Instagram users who said they felt “unattractive” and approximately 25 percent of those whose who said they felt “not good enough” reported that those feelings began on the app. Currently, over 40 percent of Instagram users are 22 years old and younger, and approximately 22 million teenagers log onto Instagram in the U.S. every day.

“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 March 2020 slide presentation posted to Facebook’s internal message board, reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. “Comparisons on Instagram can change how young women view and describe themselves.”

One slide from a 2019 presentation says that Instagram makes body image issues worse for one in three teen girls. “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression,” said another slide. “This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.”

Despite this massive amount of internal data, when Senators Richard Blumenthal and Marsha Blackburn sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in August 2021 asking him to release the company’s internal research on the mental health impacts of its platforms, Facebook responded by claiming there were issues with conducting research on these topics and saying that they were “not aware of a consensus among studies or experts about how much screen time is ‘too much.’”

“Facebook’s answers were so evasive—failing to even respond to all our questions—that they really raise questions about what Facebook might be hiding,” Blumenthal told WSJ in an email. “Facebook seems to be taking a page from the textbook of Big Tobacco—targeting teens with potentially dangerous products while masking the science in public.”

On Wednesday, three Democratic senators sent another letter to Zuckerberg, specifically voicing their concerns about the company planning to release an Instagram app geared towards children under 13 and citing his March congressional testimony claiming that research on the impact of social media platforms on kids’ mental health was “not conclusive.”

“Although you have publicly told Congress that ‘the research [I have] seen is that using social apps to connect with other people can have positive mental-health benefits,’ your own company’s research points to disturbing relationships between Instagram use and young people’s mental health challenges,” the senators wrote.

“Children and teens are uniquely vulnerable populations online, and these findings paint a clear and devastating picture of Instagram as an app that poses significant threats to young people’s wellbeing,” they added. “We are deeply concerned that your company continues to fail in its obligation to protect young users and has yet to commit to halt its plans to launch new platforms targeting children and teens.”

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