Tech giant and owner of Instagram, Facebook, has repeatedly found that its photo-sharing app Instagram is harmful to a high percentage of teenagers, according to a Wall Street Journal (WSJ) report published Tuesday.
The WSJ said it had been given access to five internal presentations at Instagram’s parent company Facebook in an 18-month period from 2019. Amongst the presentations were slides headed: “One in five teens say that Instagram makes them feel worse about themselves” and “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression.”
Despite the warnings, executives from Instagram and Facebook either minimised the negative effects or boasted of the ‘positive mental health benefits’ the app had on its younger users.
The internal Facebook studies examined how Instagram affects young people, and found that teen girls were the most significantly harmed by the app.
In one internal presentation, Facebook said that among teenagers who reported having suicidal thoughts, 13% of British users and 6% of American users traced the issue directly to Instagram.
“Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse,” the researchers reportedly wrote. Facebook also reportedly revealed that 14% of boys in the U.S. said Instagram caused them to feel worse about themselves.
Across Ireland and the UK, there are estimated to be around 2 million Instagram users aged between 13 and 17, and around two-thirds are girls.
More than 40% of Instagram’s users are aged 22 and younger according to the WSJ, making them crucial to the app’s incredible success.
Responding to the report last night, the father of Molly Russell, of Harrow, London, who tragically took her own life after viewing graphic self-harm and suicide images on Instagram, told the Mail:
“I’m shocked. Facebook knows about the dangers on its platforms, particularly those to young females on Instagram, and yet it says one thing in public and something very different behind its closed doors. It’s vital that they are open and honest about this so that we can learn the lessons to keep young and vulnerable safe online.”
‘ONE IN FIVE TEENS SAY INSTAGRAM MAKES THEM FEEL WORSE ABOUT THEMSELVES’
The in-depth research was carried out by company employees and utilised focus groups, online surveys and largescale surveys of tens of thousands of people to gather the information.
Researchers repeatedly found that Instagram specifically – not social media more broadly – was harmful for a sizeable percentage of teenage users, in particular girls.
While Facebook concluded that a high percentage of teenagers are not negatively harmed by Instagram, the key makeup of the photo-sharing app are features that make it most harmful.
According to the report, researchers highlighted Instagram’s ‘Explore’ page had the potential to be harmful to young users. The ‘Explore’ page serves users curated content from a broad range of accounts, and could push users to view content that could be dangerous.
The app has also built a ‘highlight reel’ experience – a culture of posting only the best pictures and moments – and it operates as an addictive product with a particular focus on body and lifestyle.
“Aspects of Instagram exacerbate each other to create a perfect storm,” the research said, according to the WSJ.
Research which was posted to Facebook’s internal message board in March 2020, suggested the image-driven app had the potential to plunge teen users into eating disorders, an unhealthy perception of their own bodies, and depression. It added that “comparisons on Instagram can change how young women view and describe themselves.”
One slide was even titled: “One in five teens say that Instagram makes them feel worse about themselves.”
Another presentation in 2019 read: “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression.”
The WSJ reports that top executives have analysed the research, and the alarming findings were disclosed in a presentation delivered last year to CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Despite this, Facebook has reportedly struggled to manage the problem while keeping its users engaged and coming back, and has attempted to paint a different outward picture.
Facebook is also developing a version of Instagram for kids under 13 according to the report; a move Zuckerberg has had to defend in recent months.
In a blog post, Instagram’s head of public policy, Karina Newton, responded to the reporting and said the company is trying to find ways to draw users away from fixating on certain types of Instagram content.
“We’re exploring ways to prompt them to look at different topics if they’re repeatedly looking at this type of content,” Newton said.
“We’re cautiously optimistic that these nudges will help point people towards content that inspires and uplifts them, and to a larger extent, will shift the part of Instagram’s culture that focuses on how people look.”
Some were concerned at the idea of a children’s version of the app, with U.S. lawmaker Rep. Lori Trahan highlighting the danger of the creation of such a product.
Trahan — who has made children’s mental health concerns in connection with social media a priority — blasted Facebook for considering a children’s-friendly Instagram.
In the wake of the report, Trahan called on Facebook to “immediately abandon plans for Instagram for Kids” and instead turn its attention to protecting existing young users.
“Facebook’s internal documents show that the company’s failure to protect children on Instagram – especially young girls – is outright neglect, and it’s been going on for years,” Trahan said in a statement.
“Facebook has no business developing additional social media platforms explicitly designed for our children when they can’t be trusted to keep their current house in order,” he said.
American consumer advocate, Democrat Rohit Chopra of the Federal Trade Commission was also far from impressed.
Sharing a link to the WSJ report, Chopra wrote: “Facebook apparently knew for years that Instagram is causing serious harm to teens around the world.
“Given the financial incentives embedded in irs survellience-based business model, it is yet another sign that the company cannot be trusted with our data,” he said.