Facebook knows its platform Instagram is harming the mental health of young girls and critics say the tech giant isn’t doing anything about it. Internal documents from Facebook reveal that the company has been studying how its photo-sharing app is harmful to a significant percentage of teenagers, according to recently published report from The Wall Street Journal.
Facebook has been conducting studies over the past three years that examined how Instagram affects its young user base. The studies have repeatedly found that teenage girls worldwide are being most notably harmed and some of the harm is serious, according to the report.
Despite its own in-depth research showing significant teen mental-health issues caused by Instagram, Facebook has downplayed these issues to the public, The Wall Street Journal reported.
“Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse,” researchers said in a March 2020 slide presentation posted to Facebook’s internal message board, reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. “Comparisons on Instagram can change how young women view and describe themselves.”
“We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,” read one slide from 2019. Another stated, “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression. This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.”
Among teens who reported suicidal thoughts, 6 percent of U.S. users traced the desire to kill themselves to Instagram, one presentation showed.
Facebook hasn’t made its research public or available to academics or lawmakers who have requested it.
Instagram targets younger users. “Expanding its base of young users is vital to the company’s more than $100 billion in annual revenue, and it doesn’t want to jeopardize their engagement with the platform,” The Wall Street Journal reported.
“Instagram is well positioned to resonate and win with young people,” said a researcher’s slide posted internally. Another post said: “There is a path to growth if Instagram can continue their trajectory.”
More than 40 percent of Instagram’s users are 22 years old and younger, and about 22 million teens use Instagram daily compared with 5 million teens using Facebook, The Wall Street Journal reported. On average, U.S. teens spend 50 percent more time on Instagram than they do on Facebook.
In public, Facebook has consistently played down the app’s negative effects on teens.
“The research that we’ve seen is that using social apps to connect with other people can have positive mental-health benefits,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg said at a congressional hearing in March 2021 when asked about children and mental health.
In May, Instagram head Adam Mosseri claimed the research suggests the app’s effects on teen mental health is likely “quite small.”
But the research shows otherwise. Teens on Instagram feel pressure to look perfect, and this has led to “eating disorders, an unhealthy sense of their own bodies and depression,” March 2020 internal research stated.
According to one internal slide, the findings showed that 32 percent of teenage girls reported that Instagram made them have a worse body image, TechCrunch reported.
Youth mental health is a major concern, say U.S. health officials. And Black youth are facing a mental health crisis.
In general, Black youth in the U.S. experience more illness, poverty, and discrimination than their white counterparts and this has affected their mental health. Social media would seem to only add to their mental health problems. Black youth are already at a higher risk for depression and other mental health problems. Yet Black youth are less likely to seek treatment. About 9 percent of Black youth reported an episode of major depression in 2019, but less than half of those – about 40 percent – received treatment. By comparison, about 46 percent of white youth who reported an episode sought treatment for depressive symptoms, The Conversation reported.
Suicide is now the second leading cause of death among Black children ages 10 to 19. The leading cause is homicide, according to the CDC. The Black youth suicide rate is rising faster than any other racial or ethnic group. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show the rate of suicide attempts for Black adolescents rose 73 percent from 1991 to 2017.
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While Facebook hasn’t fully addressed the concerns of its own research, others are taking action especially since it has come to light that Facebook is in the process of making a version of Instagram for kids under age 13.
Republicans have circulated discussion drafts of bills including one that would require social media platforms like Facebook to submit regular reports to the Federal Trade Commission on their companies’ impact on children’s mental health, CNBC reported.
Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., called the findings in the report “appalling” in a recent tweet and said he would be “demanding answers from Mark Zuckerberg.”
Facebook “knows Instagram is toxic for teens, but they don’t care…,” said Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., in a tweet.
Democratic FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra also tweeted, “Given the financial incentives embedded in its surveillance-based business model, it is yet another sign that the company cannot be trusted with our data.”
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