It’s been roughly a week since the Wall Street Journal broke the story that Facebook knew that Instagram is harmful to girls but chose to do little about it.
The story has already been mostly buried by the myriad other crises beleaguering the Biden Administration such as the border that’s more porous than a sieve, the Taliban reminding everyone they are still the Taliban by endorsing executions and amputations, and the White House press pool filing a formal complaint against the President for him and his aides failing to allow reporters to ask questions in the Oval Office.
It’d be exhausting if it wasn’t so expected, much like the toxicity of Instagram.
To any adult with a modicum of sense, it’s no surprise that the platform makes young girls feel bad about themselves. Research from the British Education Policy Institute and The Prince’s Trust using Millennium Cohort data found heavy social media use was linked to negative wellbeing and self-esteem with more girls experiencing feelings of depression and hopelessness. Other research has found that girls experience increased adverse psychological impact from social media use and that girls with a social media profile demonstrated significantly lower mood and self-esteem than those without a profile.
To be sure, Instagram may confer some benefit for those who use it at a moderate level and have an offline world. It can even be argued that it was particularly beneficial during the pandemic either as a coping strategy or for social connection with friends. But mostly it carries a whole lot of bad, especially for impressionable young girls who are bombarded with overly sexualized images and “fitspo,” or fitness inspiration. It’s an image driven vehicle with an algorithm in the driver’s seat.
Facebook knew all of this. Internal studies showed that 32% of teen girls who felt bad about their bodies felt worse because of Instagram; they “blame[d] Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression,” a “reaction [that] was unprompted and consistent across all groups;” and among teens who reported suicidal thoughts, 13% of British users and 6% of American users traced the desire to kill themselves to Instagram.
That’s the bombshell. They knew their product was contributing to girls wanting to die and their decision was to roll-out an optional ‘like’ button rather than wave a red flag.
The lack of transparency has the markings and beginnings of what led to the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement all over it.
In truth, I don’t know what it’s like to be a teenager in these times. I’m extraordinarily grateful I grew up before social media when the only comparison I made was with the other girls in my class and occasionally the women on the cover of magazines.
Regarding the latter, I am was lucky enough to have a hair stylist who once, when I brought in an image of a newly strawberry-blonde bobbed Christina Aguilera, looked at me and said, “Sweetheart, those are extensions, they are pinned up, and she has a team helping her look like that – how about a trim and some highlights?”
Instagram is now a place where you actually compete with the likes, literally, of Christina. And there aren’t kind adults gently saying that the images aren’t reality. Instead, there are apps and filters that allow you to manipulate and distort your body and face. The true tragedy is it isn’t just the images that come out warped, it’s the minds of young girls.
The exposé last week should be a wake-up call to all parents that social media monitoring isn’t invasive, it’s essential. We should also all be demanding transparency and accountability.
There’s an entire agency dedicated to ensuring things like cosmetics and household products are safe, and companies are required to share data on their products. Why is Instagram allowed to hide data showing their platform is harmful to young women? The answer is money. Make no mistake, they put a price tag on our daughters’ well-being, and we should all be outraged.