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Facebook knew Instagram made teenage girls feel worse about themselves – but that they are ‘addicted’ to app

‘“We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls’, said one internal Facebook document from 2019

Adam Smith
Tuesday 14 September 2021 17:04 BST
(Getty Images)

Instagram knew that its app was making teenage girls feel worse about their bodies, internal documents from the company allegedly reveal.

“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, reportedly seen by The Wall Street Journal. “Comparisons on Instagram can change how young women view and describe themselves.”

More slides included similar messages: “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,” said one slide from 2019. Another read: “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression. This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups”.

According to the findings, 13 per cent of British users and six per cent of American users believed that Instagram was a source of suicidal thoughts. Yet Instagram remains a key social media platform for young people, with over 40 per cent of the app’s demographic under the age of 22.

Facebook, the parent company of Instagram, is keen for the photo app to grow. “Instagram is well positioned to resonate and win with young people,” one slide said, with another stating that “there is a path to growth if Instagram can continue their trajectory”.

The files gathered from The Wall Street Journal make several claims based on internal Facebook data: one in five teens say that Instagram makes them feel worse about themselves, and girls in the UK are influenced the most by the app; teens who struggle with mental health say Instagram makes it worse; negative emotions about having “the perfect image, feeling attractive, and having enough money” are likely to have started on Instagram.

This data comes from focus groups, online surveys, and diary studies from 2019 and 2020, as well as a large-scale survey of thousands of users in 2021.

Many of the problems are specific to Instagram, according to Facebook’s own researchers. “Social comparison is worse on Instagram,” Facebook research from 2020 allegedly stated, because competitors such as TikTok and Snapchat are more grounded in performativity or facial filters – rather than the topics of body image and lifestyle pushed by Instagram.

“Aspects of Instagram exacerbate each other to create a perfect storm,” the research stated, which was apparently reviewed by Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg.

These harmful affects are not felt by all demographics, and for most teenagers the “negative social comparison” created by the app is outweighed by its use to keep friends connected, the research suggested. However, Instagram’s researchers also found that teens regularly wanted to use the app less but lacked the self-control to do so.

“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,” internal documents said. “They often feel ‘addicted’ and know that what they’re seeing is bad for their mental health but feel unable to stop themselves.” It was also found that selfies which have been filtered and shared in stories made users feel worse.

Researchers had suggested that Instagram should reduce exposure to celebrity content about fashion and beauty, and increase content from close friends; however, some Facebook employees pushed back against that suggestion.

“Isn’t that what IG is mostly about?” one male employee wrote on an internal message board, saying that “the (very photogenic) life of the top 0.1%” is “the reason why teens are on the platform”.

A now-former executive also pushed back on changes: “People use Instagram because it’s a competition. That’s the fun part.”

This report follows numerous stories about Facebook’s knowledge regarding the effects of its algorithms and app design. In January 2019, teenager Molly Russell committed suicide, with her father accusing the app of “helping to kill” his daughter. Instagram said it would ban graphic images of self-harm from the app one week later.

Facebook also shelved research that would stop the platform from encouraging political division, and has been found to be recommending Holocaust denial and other fascist content.

In addition to its main app, Instagram is currently building a version of its app for children under the age of 13, although 44 states in the US have asked the company to drop the plans.

In a blog post about The Wall Street Journal’s findings, Instagram said: “Social media isn’t inherently good or bad for people. Many find it helpful one day, and problematic the next. What seems to matter most is how people use social media, and their state of mind when they use it.

“Many said Instagram makes things better or has no effect, but some, particularly those who were already feeling down, said Instagram may make things worse. In the research world, this isn’t surprising or unexpected. Issues like negative social comparison and anxiety exist in the world, so they’re going to exist on social media too. That doesn’t change the fact that we take these findings seriously, and we set up a specific effort to respond to this research and change Instagram for the better.”

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