Since 2019, the staff at Facebook have been studying the impact of their product on its younger users’ states of mind. Their research has repeatedly found it is harmful for a large proportion, and particularly teenage girls. “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,” said a slide from one internal presentation, seen by the Wall Street Journal. “Thirty-two per cent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse,” a subsequent presentation reported in March 2020. Another slide said, “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression. This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.”
Comprised of findings from focus groups, online surveys and diary studies in 2019 and 2020, the Instagram research shows for the first time how aware the company is of its product’s impact on the mental health of teenagers. Another transatlantic study found more than 40 per cent of Instagram users who reported feeling “unattractive” said the feeling began on the app; about a quarter of the teenagers who reported feeling “not good enough”, also said it started on Instagram.
Following the leak, Instagram recently defended itself against the impact it has on the mental wellbeing of teenage users by saying it plans to play down posts promoting myths about beautiful bodies. Instagram head of public policy Karina Newton said that Facebook's internal research demonstrated the company's commitment to "understanding complex and difficult issues young people may struggle with, and informs all the work we do to help those experiencing these issues."
Instagram is now exploring ways to understand what kinds of posts make viewers feel bad in comparison and then "nudge" people to content more likely to make them feel good, according to Newton. “The research on the effects of social media on people’s well-being is mixed, and our own research mirrors external research. We're increasingly focused on addressing negative social comparison and negative body image and are cautiously optimistic that we can help point people towards content that inspires and uplifts them, and to a larger extent, will shift the part of Instagram's culture that focuses on how people look.”