According to the Wall Street Journal’s report, which was drawn from Facebook’s internal documents, Facebook has repeatedly found that Instagram causes anxiety and depression in young people, and negatively affects body image, especially in young girls.
The WSJ cited Facebook research that examined how Instagram has affected its teen user base over the past three years, with teenage girls being most noticeably hurt. An internal Facebook presentation said that among teens who reported suicidal thoughts, 13% of British users and 6% of American users traced the desire to suicide to Instagram.
“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, reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
More than 40% of the app’s users are 22 years old and younger, and approximately 22 million teens log into Instagram every day in the U.S. As such, Facebook prefers to hide its dangers by publicly denying information about its darker effects on society, as part of its long-standing public relations tactic, although research has voiced them internally.
According to the report, in one study of teens in the United States and United Kingdom, Facebook found that more than 40% of Instagram users who reported feeling “unattractive” said the feeling began on the app. About a quarter of the teens who reported feeling “not good enough” said the feeling started on Instagram. Many also said the app undermined their confidence in the strength of their friendships.
“The research that we’ve seen is that using social apps to connect with other people can have positive mental-health benefits,” Mark Zuckerberg said at a congressional hearing in March 2021 when asked about children and mental health.
Last May, Adam Mosseri from Instagram dismissed concerns as “quite small” about the app’s negative impact on teens. Young users make up the majority of Instagram users.
“Social comparison is worse on Instagram,” states Facebook’s deep dive into teen girl body-image issues in 2020, noting that TikTok, a short-video app, is grounded in performance, while users on Snapchat, a rival photo and video-sharing app, are sheltered by jokey filters that “keep the focus on the face.” In contrast, Instagram focuses heavily on the body and lifestyle.
According to the WSJ, Facebook concluded that a large proportion of teens are not negatively harmed by Instagram, while what the social media company identifies as most harmful are part of its key makeup.
Per the report, researchers warned that Instagram’s Explore page, which offers users curated posts from a wide variety of accounts, could push users to potentially harmful content. The app also has a culture of posting only the best pictures and moments and works as an addictive product. “Aspects of Instagram exacerbate each other to create a perfect storm,” the research said, according to the WSJ.
Karina Newton, Instagram’s head of public policy, responded to the news in a blog post, saying the company is exploring ways to turn users away from certain types of Instagram posts.
“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.”
At a congressional hearing in March, Mark Zuckerberg defended the company against criticism from lawmakers about plans to create a new Instagram for kids under 13. When asked if the company had studied the app’s effects on children, Zuckerberg said, “I believe the answer is yes.”
Following the WSJ report, Senators Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) announced a probe into Facebook’s lack of transparency around internal research showing that Instagram poses serious and even lethal danger to teens. The Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security will launch the investigation.
“It is clear that Facebook is incapable of holding itself accountable. The Wall Street Journal’s reporting reveals Facebook’s leadership to be focused on a growth-at-all-costs mindset that valued profits over the health and lives of children and teens. When given the opportunity to come clean to us about their knowledge of Instagram’s impact on young users, Facebook provided evasive answers that were misleading and covered up clear evidence of significant harm. We are in touch with a Facebook whistleblower and will use every resource at our disposal to investigate what Facebook knew and when they knew it – including seeking further documents and pursuing witness testimony,” Senators Blackburn and Blumenthal wrote. “The Wall Street Journal’s blockbuster reporting may only be the tip of the iceberg.”
Republicans circulated discussion drafts of bills including one that would require platforms like Facebook to submit regular reports to the FTC on the effects on children’s mental health.
A Facebook spokesperson said it can be difficult to share internal data outside the company because of the proprietary nature of the research and privacy concerns for those involved in the studies. Still, the spokesperson said Facebook is trying to be more transparent about its own internal studies.