Photo: CarlosBarquero (Shutterstock)
Instagram makes teenage girls feel worse about their bodies, according to internal Facebook documents published in the Wall Street Journal. (Facebook owns Instagram.) The app is full of pictures of incredibly thin and beautiful people, making tracks; and we have been concerned about the dangers of young people’s access to digital devices for years. But is Insta really rotting kids’ brains? The truth is likely more complex and the data is definitely incomplete.
I’m not saying this to defend Facebook (it’s evil), but to help those of us who are trying to figure out what to do with our children’s use of social media.
First these Facebook statistics
The statistics in the leaked Facebook presentations are pretty devastating: a third of teenage girls feel worse about their bodies after viewing Instagram, and 6% of suicidal teenagers in the US say their feelings are with the app have started. but Anya Kamenetz points to NPR. thereupon, these numbers are not necessarily representative of all teenagers.
The question of whether Insta is making teenage girls feel worse about their bodies was only asked of teenage girls who previously said they had body image issues. (In this case, it’s perhaps surprising that two-thirds didn’t feel they were feeling worse on Insta.) And the suicide rate was from a tiny sample of teenagers; Only 16 people on this earth said they can attribute suicidal thoughts to the time they spend on Instagram, and only a few of those count for US data. Teenagers at risk of suicide are too many, but does Instagram drive children to suicide? What would life be like for these 16 teenagers in a world without social media? We don’t really have the answers.
One of the most depressing things about this line of research is that it is currently impossible to get accurate and comprehensive answers to our big questions. Facebook keeps its data strict. Outside researchers can’t get anywhere near the amount of detail Facebook can get itself, so they end up using less accurate and less complete measurements of social media’s impact. Facebook has all the data a researcher could want, but they can decide what questions to ask about it and whether or not to publish the results.
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What other research says
If we look at this other research, what can we learn about the effects of social media on teenage mental health? Not much as it turns out. A fascinating paper is this review, published in 2020, looking at the papers published in recent years. The writers don’t find a one-way street where social media tells teenagers how to feel. Instead, teenagers have complicated emotions and complicated lives, and social media is only part of that landscape.
It seems true that social media can exacerbate mental health problems or leave children vulnerable to bullying. But it can also be a positive force: Teens with mental health problems use social media to understand what’s going on and look for ways to manage their symptoms.
Social media is also part of many people’s social support networks (including teenagers). They use their phones and apps to keep in touch with family and friends and to find people with common interests.
A 2018 Pew study found that 24% of teens said that social media had a negative impact on their lives, but 31% said the effect was positive overall. (The rest felt it was neither positive nor negative.) The same Facebook documents that reported Insta made teenagers feel worse about themselves actually found more positive answers than negative. For example, 19% of US teenagers said that Insta made them feel “a little” or “a lot” worse about their mental health, while 41% said it made them feel a little or a lot better.
What can we do with this information?
There is a little glimmer of hope from Looking Back 2020. After reviewing the knowledge about adolescents and social media and the many limitations in the way we investigate them, the authors point out that as the online and teenagers’ offline experiences shape their lives, “the good news for parents and policy makers is” that existing evidence-based interventions and strategies may look different but will still be effective in supporting adolescents in the digital age. “
We now have a lot more questions to answer if we want to find out what Instagram (or TikTok or any other social network) is doing to the minds of children. It will likely turn out who uses which network in what way, what kind of thing does and connects with what other people. Context is important and offline factors are important. And we just don’t have enough data yet to really describe what’s going on.
Again, I’m not defending Facebook or Insta. They clearly created a complex monster that they should control – and yet claim they cannot. But from a mental health perspective, should we stop our children from using social media? I don’t see that as the only conclusion here.
I went to school when children had to harass themselves personally, and our Photoshop edited images were from copies of Seventeen magazine that we passed around in the classroom and criticized with Sharpies. We’ve developed so many shitty body image issues and mental health issues without the help of digital social media.
A teenager who tosses their phone in the ocean will still have feelings and still need to find their own way to fit into the world. It can be most useful to think about how we can positively influence our children’s social lives, rather than just using social media.