Credit - Photo-illustration by Lon Tweeten for TIME; Getty images
The features within Instagram that cause teenage girls to develop negative feelings about their body image may be baked into the very core of the platform, researchers and former employees have said in the wake of new revelations that the company did not disclose what it knew about its impact on young users.
Facebook, which owns Instagram, has known for years that the platform is harmful to the mental health of many teenagers—particularly girls—but has kept internal research about the issue private, according to a Wall Street Journal report published Tuesday.
In response to the Journal report, a bipartisan group of Senators said they would launch an investigation into what Facebook knew about Instagram’s effect on teenage users. Instagram said it was proud of the research, and that it is constantly improving how its app works to protect users from harm.
But researchers and former Facebook employees say Instagram’s problems may be inherent to the platform and therefore almost impossible to fix. “I think because Instagram is based on images, it is difficult to not make it an appearance-focused environment,” said Jasmine Fardouly, a research fellow at the University of New South Wales in Australia focused on social media’s impact on body image. “We may be able to reduce harm, but there will always be some ways that Instagram is harmful.”
Some also point out that Facebook’s interests as a company often conflict with the safety of its users. “We have to acknowledge the broader point that Instagram and other social media apps are designed to keep people using them for as many hours as possible, because that’s how they make the most money,” says Jean Twenge, author of iGen, a book about the first generation who grew up with smartphones and social media. “That means you’re going to have a collision between what’s good for mental health and what’s good for profit.”
The harmful impact of Instagram
An internal Instagram presentation from March 2020 seen by the Journal said that when 32% of teenage girls “felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.”
The Journal also found that Instagram research showed that, among teenage users who reported suicidal thoughts, 13% of British users and 6% of American users traced those feelings to their use of Instagram. Researchers found that young women’s self image was especially badly affected by making comparisons between themselves and what they viewed on the platform.
But in Congressional testimony in March 2021, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg indicated to lawmakers that research had shown that social media apps had “positive mental-health benefits” when used to connect with others.
According to researchers, platforms like Instagram can contribute to body image issues and depression because humans have an innate desire to compare themselves to others.
“People have always wanted to present the best version of themselves to others,” says Fardouly. “It’s just that on social media people often present a very enhanced, unrealistic version of their appearance.”
Read more: How Social Media Is a Toxic Mirror
But social media apps like Instagram exacerbate that problem for a segment of the population that is already prone to making these comparisons, some experts argue. “[It] could just be that a system that encourages visual sharing unintentionally creates a prestige economy that is detrimental to the vulnerable,” said Samidh Chakrabarti, a former high-ranking Facebook employee focused on fixing the structural issues with the platform, who recently left his role at the company, in a tweet.
That’s an “important distinction” to the assumption that Instagram’s problems stem from simply trying to maximize profit at all costs, Chakrabarti argued, because it points to something deeper, at the very heart of what makes Instagram what it is and “suggests different (and harder) remedies.”
How Instagram could address the problem
Research shows that when users are presented with a more diverse range of appearances, backgrounds, and body shapes and sizes on social media, there can be a positive impact on their mental health and body image, according to Phillippa Diedrichs, a leading body image researcher who said she has carried out paid consulting work for Instagram.
Diedrichs said that in her consultations with Instagram, she looked at how the company could “embed some of those findings into the design of the app.”
“It’s things like: how do you make it easier for users to find content that can be beneficial for wellbeing, or be directed to that content?” she said in an interview with TIME. “If you notice that users are engaging in behaviors or viewing a lot of content that might be potentially harmful to them, how might you nudge them to say, hey, we’ve noticed that you’re looking at this, you’ve been spending a lot of time looking at this, would you like to look at something else?”
The changes, Diedrichs said, are a work in progress and have not yet been launched.
Instagram said in a blog post on Tuesday that its internal research shows social media usage can be beneficial as well as detrimental, and said that it is working on structural changes to its platform to counteract how it contributes to negative body image issues.
“One idea we think has promise is finding opportunities to jump in if we see people dwelling on certain types of content,” the blog post said. “From our research, we’re starting to understand the types of content some people feel may contribute to negative social comparison, and we’re exploring ways to prompt them to look at different topics if they’re repeatedly looking at this type of content. We’re cautiously optimistic that these nudges will 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.”
A Facebook spokesperson added that other measures the company is considering include allowing users to set reminders that pop up after a period of time they choose, and take a break if they’ve been on the app for a while.
Independent researchers said such changes may improve the platform’s worst excesses. “Potentially, if there was more diversity incorporated into those algorithms, it might be helpful,” said Fardouly, who does not have a professional relationship with Instagram.
Hitting the bottom line
Other stories published by the Wall Street Journal this week revealed that Zuckerberg said he would not approve changes to reduce the spread of false content on Facebook’s News Feed if those changes would also reduce user engagement.
The revelation is the latest example of Facebook rejecting or paring back measures that would benefit the safety of users, or the health of democracy more broadly, if they have a negative impact on the company’s profits.
There is the added issue that much of the content that can worsen body image perception for young women—such as images of ultrathin swimsuit models—comes from paid advertisements that make up the bulk of Facebook’s income, as opposed to organic content that can be down-ranked in people’s feeds without Facebook taking a direct financial hit.
As such, some experts are skeptical that Instagram will ever fundamentally change.
“I can’t see how it would have much of an impact to tweak Instagram so that people still spend four hours per day on the app, but an hour on more diverse content,” said Twenge, the author of iGen. “If we’re gonna do any kind of intervention with a teen girl, it’d probably be a lot more productive to tell her: people are making money off of every minute that you spend on this app.”