Internal Document Reveals Instagram’s Negative Impact on Teenage Girls

Smartphone with Instagram Logo and Text on a white background in a person's hand

It comes as no surprise that parents around the world are concerned about their children’s social media usage. There is a lot of speculation about how these apps affect the mental health of underage users. When it comes to Instagram, it turns out that there is a great deal of truth to these fears.

The Wall Street Journal put out a report on Tuesday, 14 September, based on a Facebook internal research document. The report uncovers truly shocking information about the impact Instagram has on teenage girls. It says that the popular app is a powerful engine for “social comparison,” which negatively impacts the user’s mental health.

What’s worse is that Facebook has known about it and kept this information hidden. Some key uncovered documents and presentations date back to 2019. Despite this, Facebook has publicly evaded questions about its impact on young users.

“We Make Body Image Issues Worse for One in Three Teenage Girls”

The above quote was taken from an internal Facebook presentation in 2019. The figure referred to teenagers who already faced difficulty with their body image. Instagram exacerbated these issues. Another study among teen users in the UK and US showed that 40% of teens who reported feeling “unattractive” said the feelings surfaced when using Instagram.

A key finding from the Wall Street Journal’s report was Instagram’s role in social comparison. This refers to when a person judges their own value, attractiveness, and success by comparing it to others.

The report crucially highlights that top Facebook executives knew that Instagram was geared towards greater social comparison than rival apps such as TikTok and Snapchat. Instagram spotlights lifestyles and users’ bodies more often, whereas TikTok is focused on performance and Snapchat on “jokey filters” that limit the focus to the face.

The report goes on to spotlight even more disturbing findings: teens told researchers that they felt “addicted” to the app, but did not have the self-control to reduce their usage. A 2019 internal research presentation by Facebook revealed that “teens blame Instagram for increases in anxiety and depression.” This response was “unprompted and consistent” across all groups.

Facebook even conducted research among teens who had suicidal thoughts. Among the group, 13% of UK users and 6% of US users blamed Instagram as the source of their impulses.

Facebook Publicly Evades Questions About Impact on Teens

The report notes that top Facebook executives, including CEO Mark Zuckerberg, have been quizzed about the impact of their apps on young users. However, the company has not disclosed any of the detailed information from its internal research. Facebook had told enquiring politicians that its research was proprietary and was kept “confidential to promote frank and open dialogue and brainstorming internally.”

Senator Richard Blumenthal, who had previously questioned Facebook, compared their practices to those of Big Tobacco companies. He said that the company’s answers were evasive and they did not even respond to all of the questions. This led to questions about what Facebook was hiding.

“Facebook seems to be taking a page from the textbook of Big Tobacco – targeting teens with potentially dangerous products while masking the science in public,” he added.

What Can You Do?

Connectivity through the internet and social media is an integral part of modern-day life. When leveraged properly and carefully, it is a source of tremendous opportunity to broaden one’s horizons.

The same goes for Instagram, which can provide vast information, expand creativity, and help to find or create a community. However, its current design leaves its users vulnerable to significant mental health issues, among other possible problems.

As parents, teachers, and guardians, it is important to teach loved ones about the dangers of the platform. Part of this is explaining the differences between “real life” and “reel life.”

In fact, there are plenty of creators on Instagram who celebrate body positivity and try to teach their followers to stay in touch with, and love, their real selves. Promoting such content among teenage users could be a helpful exercise.

Until Facebook decides to steer away from “social comparison,” your best bet is to self-regulate and to use alternative apps and services.

For more information on what you can do to keep children safe online, check out some of our detailed resources. You can also take a look at some of our material on the privacy practices of Instagram, which shows that Instagram might seriously affect its users’ privacy as well as their mental health.

Technology policy researcher
Prateek is a technology policy researcher with a background in law. His areas of interest include data protection, privacy, digital currencies, and digital literacy. Outside of his research interests, Prateek is an avid reader and is engaged in projects on sustainable farming practices in India.