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Opinion Instagram’s effects on teenage girls’ body image point to a bigger problem

The Instagram logo is displayed on an iPhone. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

“We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls. ”This blunt acknowledgment appeared in an internal Facebook presentation on Instagram’s effects on its millions of young users. But it never appeared where anyone else could see it, until being published as part of a recent Wall Street Journal investigation.

Researchers have long been puzzling over the damage social media sites can do to the vulnerable — not only when it comes to disordered eating but also when it comes to depression, anxiety and even loneliness, despite closer connections being these platforms’ raison d’etre. The results are mixed, as Facebook has repeated ad nauseam. The company points to outside studies showing weak correlation between screen time and damage to mental health, or it cites scientists saying we lack the information necessary to come to conclusions. Yet one of these same scientists told the Journal that technology firms themselves are responsible for the dearth of evidence: “People talk about Instagram like it’s a drug. But we can’t study the active ingredient.”

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Now, it turns out Facebook itself has been studying the active ingredient of what it produces, and while the company insists it has found positive outcomes along with negative ones, there’s plenty of negative to go around. A team tasked with an 18-month “teen mental health deep dive” took a look at the so-called social comparison — assessing one’s own value in relation to the perceived value of others. The phenomenon, they found, is a particularly acute problem on Instagram, partly because of the way the product’s design encourages people to display only the best versions of themselves and their lives. An addictive interface that serves up more of what users already consume can also exacerbate existing conditions. Nonetheless, Facebook plans to forge ahead with a version of Instagram designed for kids.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg was apprised of these findings, according to the Journal. Yet when he was asked during a congressional hearing whether his company was studying Instagram’s effects on children, he answered vaguely: “I believe the answer is ‘yes.’” Facebook also sent inquiring senators a six-page letter that didn’t include any of the information it had gleaned. A psychology professor makes an apt comparison: “If you believe that R.J. Reynolds should have been more truthful about the link between smoking and lung cancer, then you should probably believe that Facebook should be more upfront about links to depression among teen girls.”

This analogy is elucidating in another way. Had the government done something about R.J. Reynolds but not done anything about cigarettes more generally, there would still be a problem. The same goes for social media, as living life online becomes an inevitability for a rising generation. Perhaps Instagram’s essential features lend themselves more to this type of harm than TikTok’s or Snapchat’s, as Facebook’s team found. But hauling Mr. Zuckerberg to the Hill for excoriation isn’t enough. These platforms that have changed the world are altering our minds, too. Elected officials and the public must learn how that’s happening. Otherwise, we’ll never figure out what to do about it.