The Good, the Bad, and the Worse
It seems Facebook finally figured out what many of us already know, which is that Instagram could be toxic to children and, in the extreme, motivate them to commit suicide. The potential effect on a child’s wellbeing is alarming. In this blog, I will explain why and what Facebook is doing to protect children against the potential negative affects on mental wellbeing not only from using Instagram but by being on most social media chat sites. This blog is longer than usual, but the issues are complex and critical to the mental health of youngsters.
When I think about threats to the wellbeing of children, my mind automatically focuses on social media sites such as Twitter and other lesser-known websites. For example, Ask.fm is often involved in a cyberbullying incident — from casual cruelty to death threats. There have been a number of bullying-related suicides linked to use of the site, and one British family has released a public statement asking that the site be taken down following the suicide of their 16-year-old son.
The Danger of Instagram
According to an article written by Georgia Wells, Jeff Horwitz and Deepa Seetharaman, about a year ago, teenager Anastasia Vlasova started seeing a therapist. She had developed an eating disorder and had a clear idea of what led to it: her time on Instagram. She joined the platform at 13, and eventually was spending three hours a day entranced by the seemingly perfect lives and bodies of the fitness influencers who posted on the app.
“When I went on Instagram, all I saw were images of chiseled bodies, perfect abs and women doing 100 burpees in 10 minutes,” according to Vlasova, now 18. Around that time, researchers inside Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, Inc.,., were studying this kind of experience and asking whether it was part of a larger trend.
“Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse,” a group of researchers said in a March 2020 slide presentation posted to Facebook’s internal message board and reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. “Comparisons on Instagram can change how young women view and describe themselves.”
Among teens who reported suicidal thoughts, 13% of British users and 6% of American users traced the desire to kill themselves to Instagram, one presentation showed.
Why Instagram is Culpable
Corporate social responsibility is the key to evaluating the actions and words coming out of Instagram and Facebook. I believe we can safely say both companies are culpable for pushing the use of Instagram despite its potential dangers to the mental health of children, and Instagram is now looking to capitalize on the widespread global use of its social media site through the newly minted “Instagram for Kids” app.
For the past three years, Facebook has been conducting studies into the effects of its photo-sharing app on millions of young users. Repeatedly, the company’s researchers found that Instagram is harmful for a sizable percentage of them, most notably teenage girls. “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,” summarizing research about teen girls who experience the issues.
Alarming research finds that kids as young as ten are learning weight loss or purging techniques from these websites. Studies found that 96 percent of young eating disorder patients admit they learn purging and weight-loss methods while logged on. Once girls are on the site, they learn tips such as: “Throw up in the shower—it covers up the sound.”
At a congressional hearing this past March, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the founder, chair of the board of directors and CEO of the company, defended the company against criticism from lawmakers about plans to create the new Instagram product for children under 13. When asked if the company had studied the app’s effects on children, he said, “I believe the answer is yes.”
In August, Senators Richard Blumenthal and Marsha Blackburn in a letter to Zuckerberg called on him to release Facebook’s internal research on the impact of its platforms on youth mental health. In response, Facebook sent the senators a six-page letter that didn’t include the company’s own studies. Instead, Facebook said there are many challenges with conducting research in this space, saying, “We are not aware of a consensus among studies or experts about how much screen time is ‘too much,’” according to a copy of the letter reviewed by the Wall Street Journal.
Facebook also told the senators that its internal research is proprietary and “kept confidential to promote frank and open dialogue and brainstorming internally.” A Facebook spokeswoman said the company welcomed productive collaboration with Congress and would look for opportunities to work with external researchers on credible studies.
Zuckerberg said the company’s plan for the Instagram kids product, which state attorneys general have objected to, is still in the works. When told of Facebook’s internal research, Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University who has published research finding that social media is harmful for some kids, said it was a potential turning point in the discussion about how social media affects teens.
Role of Parents
Where are the children’s parents in all this? Well, many don’t care or realize their kids need to be on Instagram because their friends are there as well. They rationalize the use of Instagram by saying it’s just another way of communicating but they fail to address the potential negative effects on their children.
Some parents have reacted by saying it’s better for parents to have the option to give their children access to a version of Instagram—Instagram for kids— that is designed for them where parents can supervise and control their experience rather than rely on an app’s ability to verify the age of kids who are too young.
According to Zuckerberg in reaction to the pressure of Congress, the company stands by the need to develop Instagram but has decided to pause this project. “This will give us time to work with parents, experts, policymakers and regulators, to listen to their concerns, and to demonstrate the value and importance of this project for younger teens online today.”
Is Instagram the Most Detrimental Social Networking app?
A new study from the Royal Society of Public Health in the United Kingdom indicates that Instagram is the most detrimental social networking app for young people's mental health, followed closely by Snapchat.
Their study, #StatusofMind, surveyed almost 1,500 young people aged 14 to 24 on how certain social media platforms impact health and well-being issues such as anxiety, depression, self-identity and body image.
While the photo-based platform got points for self-expression and self-identity, it was also associated with high levels of anxiety, depression, bullying and FOMO, or the “fear of missing out.”
The Study links social media use to isolation in young adults Instagram with over 700 million users worldwide -- topped the list in terms of negative impact, most notably among young women, stated the report. Instagram draws young women to "compare themselves against unrealistic, largely curated, filtered and Photoshopped versions of reality," said Matt Keracher, author of the report.
"Instagram easily makes girls and women feel as if their bodies aren't good enough as people add filters and edit their pictures in order for them to look 'perfect,' " an anonymous female respondent said in the report.
To tackle the problem, the Royal Society for Public Health has called for social media platforms to act to help combat young users' feelings of inadequacy and anxiety by placing a warning on images that have been digitally manipulated.
"We're not asking these platforms to ban Photoshop or filters but rather to let people know when images have been altered so that users don't take the images on face value as real," Keracher said.
Internal Research Conducted by Facebook
How bad is Instagram for the mental health of its younger users? It’s a hugely important question, especially with Instagram for Kids ready to be released.
A new report from The Wall Street Journal recently got access to in-depth studies conducted by Facebook, which warns about possible detrimental effects Instagram has on its younger users, particularly teenage girls.
Teenage girls are often blasted with images of idealized bodies on Instagram, appearing as adverts, images in their feeds, and content in the app’s Explore page. This often has a negative effect on these users’ mental health. In an internal Facebook presentation, it says “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls.” (The figure referred to teenagers who already reported body image issues of some type.)
Frances Haugen, a former product manager hired to help protect against election interference on Facebook, came out a few days ago and admitted to being frustrated by what she saw as the company's lack of openness about its platforms' potential for harm and unwillingness to address the flaws. As she was getting ready to depart Facebook, Haugen came to believe that people outside the company--including lawmakers and regulators-- should know what she discovered. In particular, she said the company seemed unwilling to accept initiatives to improve safety if that would make it harder to attract and engage users, discouraging her and other employees.
Haugen received a call that Facebook decided to dismantle its Integrity Division and reassigning its responsibilities to other parts of the company. Haugen did not know why and sent an encrypted text to a Wall Street Journal reporter who had contacted her weeks earlier. To her surprise, Haugen found attorney-client privileged documents posted on open forums on the Facebook site including notes from top company executives such as Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO. Haugen wondered about the motivation of Facebook with regard to its protection of users' rights and potentially harmful effects on teenagers.
Her last act before leaving Facebook was to gather material from inside Facebook She then reached out to Whistleblower Aid, a nonprofit organization in Washington, DC that represents people reporting corporate and government misbehavior. Just a few days ago, she gave testimony to the US Senate about her whistleblower claim.
In response to a question from Sen. Todd Young (R. Ind.),Haugen expressed doubt over whether breaking up Facebook would solve the problems she described. “I’m actually against the breaking up of Facebook,” she said. “The problems here about the design of algorithms, of AI” and executives could make similar choices even if Facebook and Instagram were separate companies.
She suggested that if the companies were separate, but Instagram generated more revenue than Facebook over time, Facebook might have less of an ability to make the main Facebook platform safe. “Facebook will continue to be this Frankenstein that is altering, that is endangering lives around the world, only there won’t be money to fund it,” she said.
The FTC is pursuing an antitrust lawsuit that seeks to break up Facebook, and many members of Congress have said they believe that if Facebook had more competition it would be more likely to address concerns about harmful impacts of its products. Facebook says it faces substantial competition.
What Can Be Done About It?
So, what’s the “bottom line?” As previously mentioned, according to recent actions taken by Instagram, the website is pausing the development and release of Instagram Kids so parents can educate themselves on the potential effects on their children. The company has said that “Instagram is looking at the option of giving children access to a version of Instagram that is designed for them — where parents can supervise and control their experience — than relying on an app’s ability to verify the age of kids who are too young by looking at their ID.”
Well, all I can say is good luck with that as kids will find a way to access the full Instagram site, in part because so do their peers and the kids don’t want to be left out in the cold. In other words, children, and maybe even parents, have (unknowingly) weighed the costs of being on the site versus the potential benefits and decided the good outweighs the bad. I disagree and hope Facebook, and Zuckerberg, exercise some responsibility to protect young children from the potential dangers of using Instagram, as others have found.
I liken what’s going on with Instagram and Instagram for Kids to big-tobacco and e-cigarette companies. The warnings for tobacco use should be extended to warnings on the use of Instagram, especially for those 13-years old and younger. These warnings should extend to vaping products like Juul. The e-cigarette aerosol that users breathe from the device and exhale can contain harmful and potentially harmful substances.
In the end, each of us must act responsibly and not get caught up in superficial things like body image. It’s easier said than done for sure, but so is ethical behavior in general.
In closing, Facebook and other social media companies need to be better regulated by Congress. A 25-year-old law that shields social media companies from lawsuits over content their users post is under attack, as leaders in Congress look to hold those companies accountable for disseminating health-related misinformation.
Posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on October 6, 2021. Steve is the author of Beyond Happiness and Meaning: Transforming Your Life Through Ethical Behavior. You can sign up for his newsletter and learn more about his activities at: https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/. Follow him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/StevenMintzEthics and on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/ethicssage.