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Instagram is even worse than we thought for kids. What do we do about it?


New documents reveal Facebook knows, in granular detail, just how harmful its Instagram app is for many teenage girls, according to a Wall Street Journal report published Tuesday. The newspaper shared findings of what Instagram’s internal researchers called a “teen mental health deep dive,” including a study that found Instagram makes body image issues worse for 1 in 3 teen girls.

The pressure to look perfect, the tendency to share only the most positive and polished parts of a person’s life, and its addictive nature can send teens spiraling toward eating disorders, an unhealthy sense of their own bodies, and depression, according to the article, which cites an internal Instagram report from March 2020. Boys are also affected, with 14 percent reporting that Instagram made them feel worse about themselves. Most alarming perhaps was an internal presentation showing that, among teens who reported suicidal thoughts, 13 percent of British users and 6 percent of American users traced the desire to kill themselves to Instagram.

Instagram’s head of public policy, Karina Newton, published a response to the article, in which she writes: “While the [Wall Street Journal] story focuses on a limited set of findings and casts them in a negative light, we stand by this research.” Newton points out that “the research on the effects of social media on people’s well-being is mixed, and our own research mirrors external research.” She adds that “what seems to matter most is how people use social media, and their state of mind when they use it,” noting that “issues like negative social comparison and anxiety exist in the world, so they’re going to exist on social media too.”

“What’s helpful about this new data from Instagram is that it moves us past simplistic conversations about whether social media is good or bad to a conversation about what kinds of social media use are bad and for which kids,” says Michael Robb, senior director of research at Common Sense Media.

Instagram’s data echoes other research that suggests the app can promote unhealthy social comparisons — or when a person judges their own attractiveness, success and worth negatively based on comparisons with others. Researchers note that it is hard to tell the direction of the relationship, whether kids’ use of Instagram makes them feel worse about themselves or whether kids who are already prone to unhealthy social comparisons are going online at increased rates and using it in more problematic ways.

It is developmentally appropriate for kids to engage in social comparison, but constant negative comparisons can be detrimental to a young person’s burgeoning self-esteem and social-emotional health. “When the gap between who you are and who you want to be is big, that’s when the mental distress could really kick in,” Robb says.

“Instagram perpetuates the myth that our happiness and ability to be loved are dependent on external things: For girls, it’s appearance, and for boys, it’s financial success,” says body image researcher Lindsay Kite, co-author of More Than A Body.” The picture-perfect images on Instagram’s news feeds are so potent that they cement these superficial and harmful values into adolescent brains without them even knowing it, Kite says.

It’s why Vanessa Bennett, a mother of four children in Bedford, N.Y., kept her daughter off Instagram until she was 13, even though many of her classmates were already using it. Bennett is the founder of the New York-based sports and wellness program Dynamo Girl, which also runs puberty workshops that discuss healthy ways to use social media. When her daughter signed up for Instagram, Bennett says, “we talked in depth about the pitfalls of the app, and her older brothers talked to her about what they saw as problems on their feeds and what to avoid.”

A month into using it, her daughter opened up about feeling uncomfortable about some images and content on her Instagram feed. “She said it was making her feel bad about herself and how she looked, so we spent a lot of time talking about the research and how even adults who use Instagram feel this way, and I offered her some strategies, like how to notice what images or posts trigger these negative feelings.” Bennett says these conversations are just as important as what happens at the school lunch table.

Kids can be reluctant to tell parents about troubling things they see or feel when they are engaging with social media, because they are afraid parents will ban it. This lack of disclosure can make it difficult for parents to effectively monitor a significant part of their children’s social lives. Experts say parents can mitigate some of the risk by keeping lines of communication open and taking a genuine interest in their child’s digital world.

“Ask your child who they’re following, how they feel when they’re online, and to walk you through how they use it,” Robb says. “Kids are happier to do this than you might expect, because they don’t often get asked that question by an adult in a nonjudgmental way.”

Parents also need to pay close attention to any offline risks their adolescents are exhibiting, such as excessive peer envy or depression, because those things often overlap with problematic social media use.

It’s important that parents teach adolescents how to think more critically about what they’re seeing online, such as how companies and influencers make money off getting them hooked. To poke a hole in Instagram’s artificial veneer, Kite suggests encouraging your teen to follow people who parody social media’s toxic culture, such as comedic critics like Caitlin Reilly (@hicaitlinreilly). Kite says parents really need to make a conscious effort to push back against the harmful messaging on Instagram and instill in their children a healthier value system, so kids can recognize the lies about their worth when they see them.

There’s a temptation for parents to think all social media is bad and to want to shut it down, Robb says. “If a teen is in distress and acting out, taking social media away might be the right decision, but it also may be a tool they’re using to cope with their mental health problems by getting online support.”

If it is still the right call, he says, make a plan for how you are going to support them when it is taken away. “I think teens deserve a safe online space where they can hang out and get the support of friends,” Robb adds. “But I don’t necessarily think Facebook is the company that can do that.”

Jennifer Breheny Wallace is a freelance journalist who is writing a book on achievement culture for Penguin Random House. Find her on Twitter @wallacejennieb.

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