“ Instagram is harmful to teens, especially girls” according to – not a group of apprehensive “old
fashioned” parents – but internal research that remained secret until a few months ago, conducted
by Facebook, Instagram’s owner . Until a former employee, a software engineer in charge of data
analysis, brought to light the data collected in about two years of investigations between the United
States and other countries, including Europe.
What the Research Shows
The company carried out this study to better understand the younger generation’s use of Instagram
and to detect how – and if – it affects its youngest users’ health. A clear picture of the situation
emerges from the results, published by The Wall Street Journal on September 14, 2021: Instagram
worsens problems related to the perception of one's physical appearance (such as eating disorders),
for 1/3 of teenagers. The study also shows that teenagers blame Instagram for worsened symptoms
of anxiety and depression. Exposure to images that glorify perfect, toned, highly-groomed bodies,
which receive thousands of positive comments – and, conversely, the negative remarks you might
receive for going against norms and beauty stereotypes spread by influencers – would cause
significant problems emotionally and psychologically for youth, who increasingly use the social
network. Among the girls who said they had had suicidal thoughts – including 6% of young
Americans and 13% of those in England – traced them back to Instagram.
Reactions to the Research
Frances Haugen, a former company manager who initially preferred anonymity and later revealed
her identity during CBS News broadcast, spread the research. Later on, a US Congress
subcommittee on online security, which is handling the case, has also received her.
In short, the issue has stirred many reactions, and has become, in the U.S., a political issue... while
around the world, it has re-sparked the awareness of how damaging social media exposure can be to
its youngest users.
Internal Facebook documents released by Haugen revealed that the social media giant was aware of
the dangers and did little to address the problems, nor did it attempt to limit its harmful impact.
According to Haugen’s report, the documents have also shown how the networks optimize their
algorithms and “push” polarizing content, something that was purposefully done during the most
recent U.S. presidential election. Facebook’s practices aimed at increasing their wealth likely
contribute to the growth in the use of electronics. Furthermore, the company has double standards
for the “digital powerhouses” and ordinary users evidenced by the Wall Street Journal’s The
Facebook Files . “Influencers,” i.e., those with hundreds of thousands of followers, come out on top
in intra-company censorship, which is the work of thousands of Facebook fact checkers. Just to give
a few examples, the football player Neymar can post pictures of a naked woman; incendiary
comments from ordinary users such as “Hillary Clinton protected pedophile circles”; or "Trump
called immigrants seeking asylum ‘animals.’” Despite being verified as false by fact-checkers,
comments and images of this nature are nonetheless propagated because they attract an audience.
It appears that Mark Zuckerberg's proclaimed principle doesn't check out: “Facebook Inc. allows its
three billion users to speak with the same right and weight as political, journalistic, and cultural
elites. Our standards apply to everyone and are impartial to their status or reputation.”
The company defended itself by attempting to dispel concerns, saying that The Wall Street Journal
had only published part of the investigation. They then laid out all the various sections of the
inquiry and claimed that the research demonstrates how this issue has been given careful attention.
A few days after the scandal, on September 27, 2021, Adam Mosseri, head of Instagram, announced
on the social network’s blog that Instagram Kids would temporarily be suspended in order to further
develop this app made for children 6-12 years old. The intention would be “to create tools for
parental supervision” during this time of suspension. For some time now, the company has been
working on a plan to intercept some of its users, children especially, who increasingly use other
platforms, such as YouTube and TikTok. Though, now they've decided to block everything until
who knows when.
Just a few hours after Haugen's hearing in Congress, it was time for Zuckerberg to act. He began on
Facebook... spreading the text of a letter he sent to all employees in which he claims that the money
the company gains isn't important to him and that those who use his platforms come first. He added
that the claims made by the former employee were simply “illogical” accusations.
In short, the social network magnate isn’t having an easy time. Some months ago he dealt with the
total temporary blackout of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, which lasted more than five hours
and cost about six billion dollars at the stock market. These losses are in addition to direct losses of
about 900 million dollars. It’s easy to imagine that the issue of Instagram's dangers to teens won't be
resolved anytime soon. Or at least, we should hope so, all things considered.
How Can We Protect Our Children?
Many are wondering if the major social media networks aren't so different from the big tobacco
corporations in years past, who, despite knowing the dangers of substance use, kept them secret.
It's a fact that children, even before they learn to read, write, or even speak, use social media and
other online platforms for hours on end every day, whether or not there is parental supervision. Kids
will often falsify their ages in order to create accounts. We hope this fact will shock parents and
bring their attention to how their children use social networks.
Many people around the world are asking: “If the alarm raised by Facebook's research is
unjustified, why were the results kept secret?” and, “Is Instagram Kids’ suspension a consequence
of the dissemination of private data and the fuss that was raised?”
These are questions that hopefully can be properly answered. Meanwhile, as parents, we can simply
keep an even closer eye on how our children are using social media networks and not leave them
alone to navigate them.