Facebook knows about Instagram’s harm on young people — but has no consensus on mitigating problems

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Brian Hardzinski

Facebook has done years of research into Instagram, and found that a sizable percentage of its teen users are suffering from body image and anxiety issues that have been exacerbated by the photo platform. But despite internal knowledge of the situation, there’s little effort to rectify the issue. Photo by Shutterstock.

Facebook has extensively researched Instagram’s effect on the mental health of teenagers, especially girls. It found that nearly one-third of users blame the photo-sharing platform for body image issues, along with a rise in anxiety and depression. Facebook, which owns Instagram, knows its photo app is toxic but downplays that publicly. 

This is one part of a large investigation called “The Facebook Files,” written by Deepa Seetharaman, a Wall Street Journal reporter who covers Facebook and the intersection of social media and politics. 

“The researchers that we've talked to all felt like the conclusions were pretty firm — that Instagram was having a pretty negative impact on a sizable minority of girls,” Seetharaman tells KCRW. “Different issues have different breakdowns. Body image issues — it's a third of teen girls. And other issues like suicidal ideation is smaller, but it's still a pretty meaningful impact on the community.” 

She points out that social pressure also extends to teen boys. 

“There's a lot of research internally that shows that boys feel this pressure to show off and to have a certain kind of appearance, [to] look good but also have the right shoes [and] car, right?” 

Seetharaman says that internally, employees are having conversations on how to mitigate the impacts of the platform on youth. But there isn’t a consensus on how to do so. 

“There is this idea, ‘Hey, maybe we should reduce exposure to celebrity content, fashion content, beauty content, and increase exposure to content from your close friends.’ … Company employees [have also] asked questions like, ‘Well, hang on, isn't this what Instagram is about? Getting a peek at that really photogenic, really popular 1%?’” 

She adds, “There's this tension there about, ‘This is the content that people come to Instagram for, but is it also the content that makes people feel bad about themselves?’” 

Instagram has attempted to address these issues. That includes launching a feature that removes “likes” from posts to prevent users from comparing themselves to others. But Seetharaman says the ideas for solutions have been watered down or killed — when they should be rolled out. 

In a recent Wall Street Journal podcast, the head of Instagram, Adam Mosseri, argues that social comparison and body image anxiety is a societal problem and not an Instagram-specific issue. Seetharaman agrees, but points out that the interactive, image-based platform exacerbates these issues.

It’s still unclear which direction Instagram will go, but Seetharaman says it will be critical for the company to take risks to retain young users and grow. 

“Nobody at Instagram wants to hurt teen girls and make them feel bad about their bodies. Nobody wants to undermine the confidence of teenagers and young people in general. Young people and teens are the future of these platforms, right? If they're going to grow and extend into the future, they need young people now, and they need them to have good experiences.” 

Credits

Guest:

  • Deepa Seetharaman - Wall Street Journal reporter who covers Facebook and other technology companies from San Francisco