A leak from Facebook has revealed it withheld its own research on the harmful effects of Instagram for two years, including stats surrounding the damage to mental health that the social platform poses to teenage girls.
Journalists at the Wall Street Journal reported seeing a slide from an internal presentation given within Facebook in 2019, showing their research that indicated the platform, which has roughly one billion monthly active users globally, is harmful for a large proportion of users, especially teenage girls.
“We make body image issues worse for 1 in 3 teen girls,” one of the slides presented.
Another internal presentation inside Facebook, occurring in March 2020, said that “thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.”
These leaks show Facebook was aware that Instagram, which it acquired in 2012, had a series of diary studies, focus groups and online surveys conducted between 2019 and 2020, which showed the product’s harmful impact on the mental health of teenagers.
In public however, Facebook executives have persistently minimised its negative impact on teenagers.
Adam Mosseri, the 38-year old the head of Instagram, said in May that he was aware of research that suggests its effects on teenagers’ mental health was probably “quite small”.
One internal study noted that “aspects of Instagram exacerbate each other to create a perfect storm,” putting pressure on young people to share only the best moments in their lives and to ‘look perfect’ — all of which may draw teenagers into depression, lower self-esteem and eating disorders.
One of the most troubling conclusions found within these internal reports was that among users who self-reported suicidal thoughts, 13 percent in the UK and 6 percent in the US connected them back to being on Instagram.
A 2017 report by YoungMinds and the Royal Society for Public Health pinpointed Instagram as having the most negative impact on young people’s mental wellbeing of all the available social networks at that time.
The charity’s chief executive, Emma Thomas, said despite possible beneficial aspects to social media, pressure exerted on young people also spiked.
“Being surrounded by constant images of the ‘perfect’ life and seemingly perfect bodies can also have a big impact on how you feel about your own life and appearance, and it can be really hard not to compare yourself to others,” Thomas told The Guardian.
5Rights Foundation, a UK based charity that campaigns for changes to digital services to make them more suitable for young people, released a statement saying, “Facebook’s own research is a devastating indictment of the carelessness with which it, and the tech sector more broadly, treats children.”
“In pursuit of profit these companies are stealing children’s time, self-esteem and mental health, and sometimes tragically their lives … This is an entirely human-made world, largely privately owned, designed to optimise for commercial purposes – it does not have to be like this. It is time to optimise for the safety, rights and wellbeing of kids first – and then, only then – profit.”
The Guardian was sent a link to a blog post written by Karina Newton, Instagram’s head of public policy, where she said the Wall Street Journal story had “focused on a limited set of findings and casts them in a negative light”.
“Issues like negative social comparison and anxiety exist in the world, so they’re going to exist on social media too,” Newton said.
“That doesn’t change the fact that we take these findings seriously, and we set up a specific effort to respond to this research and change Instagram for the better.”
Back in September 2019, Instagram’s public policy manager, Emma Collins said she wanted Instagram “…to be a positive place for everyone that uses it and this policy is part of our ongoing work to reduce the pressure that people can sometimes feel as a result of social media.”