When Facebook spent $1 billion to buy Instagram in 2012, it sought the customers key to its continued growth: teenagers.
As adolescents and young adults fled Facebook for platforms like Instagram and Snapchat, Facebook knew its long-term survival depended on winning over that demographic. But the savvy business move had a different, less public price tag.
Caught up in recommendations from a powerful algorithm designed to keep them engaged, some teen girls found Instagram worsened their body image, according to a new Wall Street Journal investigation. Users even pinned feelings of increased depression, anxiety, and suicidal thinking on the app.
The Journal found that studies conducted privately by the platform to better understand how Instagram affects young users led to alarming results. Internal research documents from the past few years, which the Journal reviewed, revealed that a third of teen girls who already felt bad about their bodies said Instagram made them feel worse. For teens who expressed suicidal thinking, 6 percent of U.S. users and 13 percent of British users identified their experience on Instagram as a reason for those feelings.
“Comparisons on Instagram can change how young women view and describe themselves,” read one slide posted to an internal Facebook message board.
“Comparisons on Instagram can change how young women view and describe themselves.”
Evidently, Facebook, which prefers to point to its lofty ideal of doing good by connecting the world while minimizing the platform’s real and potential harms, has known since at least 2019 that its product does real damage to some young people, particularly girls. Aside from acknowledging that some users said “like” counts made them feel anxious, the company disclosed almost nothing about its research. In a statement published in the wake of the Journal‘s revelations, an Instagram executive said the company wanted to be more transparent about internal research in the future.
For years, child safety advocates and journalists, including myself, have tried to offer youth and their parents guidelines for using social media wisely, and coping skills for when things go wrong. But that approach has limits. The Journal‘s reporting makes clear that children and their caregivers are up against a ruthless business model in which Facebook, the companies that advertise on Instagram, and the influencers who stand to make a fortune from amassing impressionable followers all profit off the vulnerability and insecurity of its teen users.
What’s happening on Instagram for young girls is the age-old marketing tactic of inviting the customer to compare their life to someone else’s and compete for the better existence, but on steroids.
While there are numerous products that simultaneously trigger feelings of self-confidence and self-loathing, there is no parallel to Instagram. Fashion and beauty magazines aimed at teen girls have historically sold triumphant narratives to its readers while also peddling self-improvement through consumerism. Yet a reader cannot find her friends chatting in real-time, in ways that could include or exclude her, in those same pages. Hollywood television series and movies, which often depict unattainable looks and lifestyles for teen girls, stop after a certain length of time. Viewers don’t wait for a glamorous celebrity to speak directly to the crowd, then chime in with their own comment and wait eagerly for someone to notice.
Instagram likes to think of these dynamics as simply a reflection of our shared reality.
“Issues like negative social comparison and anxiety exist in the world, so they’re going to exist on social media too,” Karina Newton, Instagram’s head of public policy, said in the company’s statement.
Yet, Instagram has arguably changed real life itself by ratcheting up the stakes of teen girls’ digital social lives and interactions. The Journal interviewed teens who said, among other things, that Instagram intensified the feeling that high school is a popularity contest, and drew them to content that heightened negative emotions about their body.
One 19-year-old said that when she searched Instagram for workouts and found examples she liked, the algorithm kept surfacing photos of how to lose weight on her Explore page.
“I’m pounded with it every time I go on Instagram,” she told the Journal.
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While every family can do its best to learn about digital safety and well-being, the truth is that those efforts are hardly a match against a company that has designed an addictive, ever-present product capable of making users feel both good and bad. The users, meanwhile, never know which experience they’ll get on any given day, or hour.
Still, teens return day after day for reasons that Facebook and Instagram cite as a defense of their product. They want to socialize with their friends. They’re participating in activism and social change. They found a community that accepts them for who they are. There may lots of benefits and no harm in these scenarios, but Facebook and Instagram haven’t been particularly interested in letting users know when the platform causes pain. In fact, it seems content to withhold its own internal findings while emphasizing the uncertainty of independent scientific research that fails to establish a causal relationship between social media use and poor well-being. (Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg reportedly called such research contradictory.)
The evidence presented by the Journal suggests that Facebook can and will conceal its teen users’ negative experiences if they threaten the company’s bottom line. Instead, Instagram has partnered with nonprofits to create content promoting “emotional resilience.” According to the Journal, one video made as part of that project recommended teens use a daily affirmation — “I am in control of my experience on Instagram” — for a more positive experience.
The Journal‘s reporting, however, makes it obvious that users aren’t really in control. Through Instagram, Facebook has provided a platform for advertisers and influencers to leverage an algorithm to take advantage of girls’ insecurities in ways that simply weren’t possible in the past. Everyone is in it for the money — except for the girls.
If you want to talk to someone or are experiencing suicidal thoughts, Crisis Text Line provides free, confidential support 24/7. Text CRISIS to 741741 to be connected to a crisis counselor. Contact the NAMI HelpLine at 1-800-950-NAMI, Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. – 8:00 p.m. ET, or email email@example.com. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Here is a list of international resources.