Content warning: this article briefly mentions suicidal ideation.

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Over the past month, there has been a tug of war between news media outlets, namely the WSJ journalists, and Facebook. The challenge started with the initial WSJ report that interpreted the leaked Facebook internal research into the possible negative effects of Instagram on the mental health of young people, and that initial pull was then countered by Facebook’s own Newsroom statement, which also included annotated versions of the original research that the WSJ referenced.

The argument

It has long been suspected and in many circles - taken as a given, that Instagram can have a wide variety of negative effects on our mental health - seemingly more so for those we deem young and more vulnerable to influence.

From highly edited, ‘facetuned’ photos that do not come with a disclaimer, to influencers seemingly having a never-ending supply of new clothing and products, only for followers to discover their favourite influencer has been getting paid to appear on their profile wearing or vouching for certain products, (influencers now have to state whether the product/clothing item is PR) the lines of reality on the platform have been blurred, almost since it’s inception.

Instagram has inarguably been the perpetrator of perpetuating a distorted view of reality, resulting in many young people setting unrealistic expectations for their lives, their bodies, their levels of happiness, fulfilment, and materialistic capital. With Instagram becoming one of the main lenses through which young people view their lives and those around them, it would be foolish to suggest that it would have to impact on the mental wellbeing of its more than 1 billion users.

The research

This leaked internal research is, despite the furore between the WSJ and Facebook themselves, nothing new. 2021 research by Girlguiding found that two in five girls aged between 11 and 16 (40%) in the UK say images they see online make them feel insecure, this number only increases in the age group between 17 and 21 where 50% agreed that photos online negatively impacted their body image.

The Facebook research itself - does admit that Instagram has the potential to have a more severe impact on young girls, especially, owing to the platforms focus on the body and lifestyle. Commenting on this aspect of Instagram, the study stated: “Social comparison is worse on Instagram” and “Aspects of Instagram exacerbate each other to create a perfect storm”, here commenting on the Explore page feature which suggests new content to a user.

Sonia Livingstone, a professor of social psychology in the department of communications, spoke to The Guardian about the importance of adolescence and early teen years for young girls, where they are faced with many challenges that bring into question who they are, who they want to be. Professor Livingstone said: “It is at that point where they are assailed with many answers to their dilemmas and a prominent answer at the moment is that it might be what they look like, that it matters what they bought”.

The annotated and released Facebook research is split into two decks, the first which includes a survey of over 22,000 users from Brazil, the US, Japan, Turkey, India and Indonesia found that an estimate of 30% of teenage girls agreed Instagram made their body image issues worse. However, a majority of those surveyed said Instagram has no impact on their mental health.

The language used by Facebook to categorise whether or not participants were in fact being negatively affected by the platform was at times vague in this survey, using phrases such as ‘hard moments’. One slide states that for those teenage girls who were experiencing ‘hard moments’ one in three found that Instagram exacerbated already existing issues.

The WSJ emphasised one slide in the research where Facebook rather brazenly admits that ‘we make body issues worse for 1 in 3 teen girls’, which on the surface (and when considering the fact that this internal research might not ever have been intended for public release), appears unequivocally damning. However, in the now released research with annotations, Facebook describes the comment as “myopic”.

The second deck of research, which focuses on a survey of over 2,500 teens in the US and the UK, shows slides that state:

  • One in four UK girls feel more negative about themselves due to Instagram
  • One in four UK and US teens who felt unattractive believe that feeling started on Instagram
  • Of Instagram users that reported suicidal ideation 6% in the US and 13% in the UK said it started on Instagram

In the annotations to the slide that included the latter stats, Facebook emphasised that only 16 participants in the survey reported any suicidal thoughts.

One survey participant, a girl from the UK, is quoted on a slide saying:

“You can’t ever win on social media. If you’re curvy, you’re too busty. If you’re skinny, you’re too skinny. If you’re bigger, you’re too fat. But it’s clear you need boobs, a booty, to be thin, to be pretty. It’s endless, and you just end up feeling worthless and shitty about yourself.”

The response

In Facebook’s own statement that accompanied the annotated research slides, they labelled The WSJ’s report as a ‘mischaracterization’ and noted that the annotations are to ‘give more context’ as the research was ‘designed to inform internal conversations’ and that it was ‘created for and used by people who understood the limitations of the research’.

Facebook further stated that ‘It is simply not accurate that this research demonstrates Instagram is “toxic” for teen girls’, bringing to attention that many issues such as loneliness, anxiety, sadness and eating issues were actually alleviated by the platform.

The WSJ has since released even more leaked slides, in response to Facebook’s statement, some of which (out of context) once again appears to be overwhelmingly negative, saying that ‘66% of teen girls on IG experience negative social comparison (compared to 40% of teen boys)’. These slides also unpack just how this overwhelming impulse to compare on Instagram can ‘trigger’ depression and what kind of content results in this more negative response rather than feeling motivated or inspired.

This argument, this tug of war, has been split into a binary between WSJ and Facebook. On the side of Facebook, this research needs to be viewed within its context; the research was ‘designed to inform internal conversations about teens’ most negative perceptions of Instagram’ and aside from it’s findings about body image and lifestyle comparison, they see a majority positive response.

On the side of the WSJ, Instagram has become a dangerous and toxic place, a fact that even Facebook admits to, and this internal research that appears to never have been intended for public release, only confirms this.

The two decks of research and the WSJ’s own findings will be presented in the latest of a long line of congressional hearings in the US around the safety of Facebook and Instagram, and has also resulted in Instagram putting the much-debated Instagram Kids on pause.

Whenever an argument or discussion falls into this kind of tug of war, binary, black and white state, it often fails to dig into the finer nuances. In many ways, both Facebook and the WSJ are right; the question shouldn’t be whether or not Instagram has become a wholly toxic place unfit for the use of young people, but how they can change their platform, to safeguard their youngest users, even when only a minority seem to be most adversely affected.

If the issues discussed in this article apply to you or someone you know you can call Samaritans for FREE 24/7, 7 days a week on 116 123, your call will not be named on your phone bill.