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Instagram Use Is Harming the Mental Health of Young Girls, and Facebook Knows It: Report

Neil Campbell
Neil lives in Canada and writes about society and politics.
Published: September 16, 2021
Teenagers take photos for their Instagram account on September 28, 2020 in Kershon, Ukraine. An expose by the Wall Street Journal revealed parent company Facebook is well aware of the harm the app inflicts on a large portion of its 22 million daily teenage users from its own internal surveys and focus groups.
Teenagers take photos for their Instagram account on September 28, 2020 in Kershon, Ukraine. An expose by the Wall Street Journal revealed parent company Facebook is well aware of the harm the app inflicts on a large portion of its 22 million daily teenage users from its own internal surveys and focus groups. (Image: Pierre Crom/Getty Images)

Instagram’s addictive and distorting social environment is harming the psyche and self esteem of young women, and parent company Facebook is well aware of the problem, according to a new expose by the Wall Street Journal.

WSJ acquired several internal Facebook and Instagram employee documents from an unidentified source that examined “areas including teen mental health, political discourse and human trafficking.”

One such example is a slide deck from 2020 posted on an internal message board that said, “Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.” The slide admitted, “Comparisons on Instagram can change how young women view and describe themselves.”

Another deck the Journal reviewed from 2019 found Instagram makes body image issues “worse” for a third of teen girls, while another slide said teens surveyed directly attributed depression and anxiety to use of the app. 

“This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups,” noted the internal discussion.

The Journal says that not only are 40 percent of Instagram users aged 22-and-under, 22 million teenagers use the app each day, compared to only 5 million who use Facebook. Additionally, teens spend 50 percent more time on Instagram than they do on its parent company’s app. 

Authors found Facebook was well aware of the issues after having conducted extensive “focus groups, online surveys and diary studies in 2019 and 2020,” and “large-scale surveys of tens of thousands of people in 2021 that paired user responses with Facebook’s own data about how much time users spent on Instagram and what they saw there.”

In a slide from the documents reviewed shared in the article by WSJ, 51 percent of UK respondents said Instagram’s influence was the source of a psychological neuroticism to “create the perfect image,” 43 percent said they had become neurotic about not being attractive, and 42 percent about not having enough money.

The numbers were slightly lower in US-based respondents.

In another slide, 21 and 25 percent of US and UK girls respectively said Instagram use makes them feel either somewhat worse or much worse about themselves.

In focus groups, one girl told researchers “I felt like I had to fight to be considered pretty or even visible” when using Instagram. Another said, “I feel like I am too big and not pretty enough…It makes me feel insecure about my body even though I know I am skinny.”

Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University told the Journal, “For some people it might be tempting to dismiss this as teen girls being sad…we’re looking at clinical-level depression that requires treatment. We’re talking about self harm that lands people in the ER.”

The studies were conducted by “Facebook employees in areas including data science, marketing and product development who work on a range of issues related to how users interact with the platform.” 

“Many have backgrounds in computer science, psychology and quantitative and qualitative analysis,” noted the authors.

The staffers, in five studies conducted over 18 months, found the issues were specific to Instagram, rather than social media in general. The results of their research were presented to Mark Zuckerberg. 

In 2012, Facebook paid a massive $1 billion for Instagram, which at the time was a startup with only 13 employees. WSJ said the purchase came on the back of Facebook posting a decline in teenage users for the first time in its history. 

And the presentations noted that although the kids wanted to spend less time on Instagram, they felt they just could not shake the habit, “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…They often feel ‘addicted’ and know that what they’re seeing is bad for their mental health but feel unable to stop themselves,” read one document.

The app’s negative influence appears to be algorithmically driven. According to a 19-year-old girl the outlet interviewed, after she searched on the app for workouts, Instagram began feeding her explore page and her personal ad feed with weight loss, body image, and diet advice materials, which were documented in a photo collage in the article. 

Yet according to WSJ, some staffers actually encouraged the negative trend. When researchers suggested in March that the app take its focus away from celebrities, fashion, beauty, and relationships, one employee clapped back on an internal message board, “Isn’t that what IG is mostly about?…the (very photogenic) life of the top 0.1%? Isn’t that the reason why teens are on the platform?”

An unnamed former executive was similarly quoted as saying, “People use Instagram because it’s a competition. That’s the fun part.”

For an example of the real world consequences of this approach on the psychology of young women, WSJ interviewed and photographed Anastasia Vlasova, an 18-year-old girl from Reston, Virginia who is an attractive young woman by any reasonable measure.

Vlasova, who started using Instagram when she was 13 and found herself wasting three hours a day “entranced by the seemingly perfect lives and bodies of the fitness influencers who posted on the app,” developed an eating disorder serious enough to require the aid of a therapist. 

She attributes the issue to dysphoria generated from the time invested on Instagram, “When I went on Instagram, all I saw were images of chiseled bodies, perfect abs and women doing 100 burpees in 10 minutes.”

“I had to live with my eating disorder for five years, and people on Instagram are still suffering,” she said.

Nonetheless, Facebook still intends to roll out an Instagram for Kids app, targeting children 13 and under. In May, 44 state Attorneys General wrote Mark Zuckerberg with a list of 15 different citations, asking the CEO to scrap the initiative in the interests of youth mental health. 

In July, WSJ ran an extensive experiment on competitor social influencing app TikTok, an app with an extremely large and young userbase run by the Chinese Communist Party’s ByteDance. TikTok recently began formally collecting biometric data on its users.

The experiment utilized automated accounts that provided only geolocation data to the TikTok server in order to examine how the site’s algorithm works.

The Journal found TikTok’s artificial intelligence could determine a user’s desires in under 40 minutes, simply based on the amount of time, if any, the automated accounts spent looking at certain videos, and would quickly rabbit hole the bots with increasingly extreme and harmful content that often groomed viewers for sexual fetishes and suicide.