Facebook Studied Instagram’s Toxic Effects on Teen Girls, Downplayed Problem to Public (Report)

Facebook-owned Instagram has attracted a younger user base for the company, but internal research confirms that the app is linked to major mental health repercussions especially in young girls — a discussion that many critics and experts have raised over the years.

For the last few years, Instagram researchers have been studying this impact on their users. Their findings, obtained from an internal Facebook message board by The Wall Street Journal, revealed 32% of teen girls who felt bad about their bodies felt worse because of Instagram. Among those having suicidal thoughts, 13% of British teens and 6% of American teens linked that desire to Instagram, according to the research.

In 2012, Facebook purchased Instagram for $1 billion as it was on the hunt for competitive social apps. Instagram was seen as a perfect investment to expand its user base to younger users, which were starting to decline on the Facebook platform. In 2016, Facebook charged its employees to focus on capturing teen users to compete against competitors such as Snapchat.

Another study found that more than 40% of Instagram’s teen users in the US and UK felt “unattractive” after using the app. Another quarter of them felt “not good enough”, and many also reported that the app affected their confidence in their friendships. Instagram also impacts teen boys — another internal study in 2019 showed that 14% of American boys said Instagram negatively affected their self-image.

Despite the telling results, Facebook never made its findings public or shared it with academics or lawmakers who have sought this information. And publicly, the company continued downplaying the app’s harmful effects on teens. After all, reaching this younger audience has been a boon to the tech giant’s $100 billion-plus in revenue and $1 trillion valuation.

More than 40% of Instagram users are 22 years old or younger, and 22 million teens in the US use the app every day. By comparison, 5 million teens in the US log on to Facebook daily, and teen users spend 50% more time on Instagram.

Beyond that, Instagram’s culture of highlighting and presenting a user’s best moments, the most perfect captures, add to its addictive nature. Teens, as a result, can develop eating disorders, body issues and depression, according to its 2020 internal research. Curated feeds by the algorithm further fuel that problem as it serves up endless content to its users.

Facebook’s researchers further revealed that some of these issues were exclusively happening with Instagram, and not across social media in general. Social comparison, in which users base their value in relation to attractiveness or success of others, is actually worse on Instagram than compared to apps like TikTok or Snapchat. The research noted that Instagram is about the body and lifestyle, much more than Snapchat’s filters that focus on the face, for instance.

All of this research has reportedly been reviewed by Facebook’s own executives and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Yet the company is forging ahead with its plans to build an Instagram for kids — despite opposition from state attorneys general.

Facebook researchers said they are experimenting with a feature to ask users if they want to “take a break” from using Instagram, but noted that they are struggling with identifying which users are at greatest risk from those mental health issues they studied.

Facebook did not immediately respond to TheWrap’s request for comment.