Facebook knows Instagram hurts teen girls but downplays concerns: report
Facebook has conducted internal studies that found Instagram is harmful to teen girls and exacerbates body image issues, anxiety and depression — even though the company’s executives have publicly extoled the mental-health benefits of social media, a new report says.
Facebook for the past three years has been conducting studies into how its Instagram app affects its millions of young users, repeatedly finding that it’s toxic for many of them, especially teenage girls, The Wall Street Journal reported, citing internal documents.
“Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse,” the researchers reportedly wrote in a March 2020 presentation.
“We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,” another slide from 2019, summarizing research about teen girls who experience the issues read.
“Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression,” said another slide, according to the Journal. “This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.”
Among teens who reported having suicidal thoughts, 13 percent of British users and 6 percent of American users said the desire to kill themselves came from Instagram, one presentation reportedly showed.
The research has been reviewed by top Facebook executives, the Journal reported, and was cited in a 2020 presentation given to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, according to the documents.
But Zuckerberg has repeatedly declined to make Facebook’s internal research on the effects of its platform on young users public for lawmakers and academic researchers.
He has said in response to at least one official request for the research from lawmakers that the findings are proprietary and “kept confidential to promote frank and open dialogue and brainstorming internally,” the Journal reported.
And yet Zuckerberg’s public comments about his platform’s effects on mental health appear to be at odds with Facebook’s internal findings.
“The research that we’ve seen is that using social apps to connect with other people can have positive mental-health benefits,” Zuckerberg said at a congressional hearing in March when asked about children and mental health.
Instagram’s young users are crucial to not only Instagram’s, but its parent company Facebook’s success, the Journal noted.
More than 40 percent of Instagram’s users are 22 years old and younger while Facebook has been shedding young users, according to documents obtained by the Journal.
And the features that make Instagram most harmful to teens appear to be central features of the platform, the report said.
Researchers have reportedly warned that Instagram’s Explore page, which serves users curated posts from a wide range of accounts sorted by artificial intelligence, can push users toward harmful content.
The researchers also reportedly found that the app’s culture of posting only the best moments of one’s life is harmful and leads it to serve as an addictive product.
These features combined can push teens toward eating disorders, an unhealthy sense of their own bodies and depression, the internal research found, according to the Journal.
“Aspects of Instagram exacerbate each other to create a perfect storm,” the research reportedly found.
Karina Newton, Instagram’s head of public policy, said in a blog post Tuesday that the Journal’s report “focuses on a limited set of findings and casts them in a negative light” and added that “we stand by this research.”
In a recent interview with the Journal, Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri said: “In no way do I mean to diminish these issues.…Some of the issues mentioned in this story aren’t necessarily widespread, but their impact on people may be huge.”
“For me, this isn’t dirty laundry. I’m actually very proud of this research,” he said, adding that it’s not easy to address features harmful to young users.
“There’s a lot of good that comes with what we do,” he told the Journal.