Between the political outrage and the parental alarm over the harm that Facebook is doing to young women – now documented in the social-media company’s own leaked secret research – there’s something to remember: None of this should be a surprise.
For years now, researchers have been documenting the damage that apps such as Instagram do to a vulnerable teenager’s mental health. Surveys of young users found that time spent on Instagram, which Facebook owns, was associated with lower self esteem and poorer body image. Studies analyzing user content and advertising found that teenagers were being exposed to material touting dangerous diet fads and pro-anorexia resources. Instagram’s potential to do harm was never hidden; it was right there, on the feed of every teenager worrying about being fat, its algorithm serving up a poisonous meal of glossy, impossibly beautiful, digitally altered bodies.
“It is scary that Facebook knew this all along themselves, and have done so little about it,” said Sarah Woodruff, a kinesiology professor at the University of Windsor who has been researching Instagram’s negative side effects since 2015.
The big reveal of this open secret arrives at a particularly worrisome period for young people, who, trapped at home during the pandemic, have been spending more time on social media than ever. Even before COVID-19, Canadian teens were self-reporting higher rates of anxiety and depression – a finding supported by steadily increasing mental-health visits to emergency departments. In the past year, hospitals and clinics have seen rising cases of eating disorders and growing waiting lists for treatment.
It would be simplistic to blame that rise solely on social media. Spending time online is not universally harmful – and, as Facebook took pains to point out this week, many teens have positive experiences. But research has also shown that for a certain group of young people – especially those already at risk for mental-health issues – Instagram can be a dangerous space.
That’s what Facebook’s own research, leaked to The Wall Street Journal by former employee Frances Haugen, suggests as well: Instagram makes about one in five teenagers feel worse about themselves – girls, especially. In one graph in Facebook’s original research, attributed to a survey of 1,122 teens in the United States and the United Kingdom, roughly one-fourth said the feeling that they weren’t good enough “most likely” began on Instagram. The data also suggested an association between Instagram and self-harm, or suicidal thoughts. Teens are “acutely aware” that Instagram can be bad for their mental health, one Facebook research slide states, but are compelled to be on it for fear of missing out.
These reports are being called Facebook’s Big Tobacco moment – a comparison to how that industry concealed knowledge that cigarettes caused cancer – and are fuelling a call for regulation. Facebook “knows its products can be addictive and toxic to children,” one U.S. senator declared before hearing testimony from Ms. Haugen this week. “Their profit was more important than the pain they caused.”
Facebook has challenged Ms. Haugen’s credibility, and said the research has been taken out of context and was based on small sample sizes and qualitative interviews, even flagging mistakes in their own charts. But the company’s findings are consistent with the academic research, and as Dr. Woodruff and other experts argue, the effort it has made to protect teenaged users has not been particularly effective. A couple of years ago, Instagram removed the ability to see the number of “likes” an image received and, in response to questions this week, Facebook pointed to continuing efforts to remove content that promotes eating disorders, as well as new “opt out” controls that allow young people more say over what appears in their feed.
But banned hashtags are simply replaced with new versions, Dr. Woodruff says, and content easily slips past gatekeeping measures. For instance, even though Facebook says it prevents risky advertising from reaching kids, a recent experiment by the U.S.-based Tech Transparency Project found that the company accepted ads for teenage users that marketed pills, alcohol and extreme dieting. (The study copied a similar Australian experiment, where questionable ads were also accepted.)
A chief criticism against Facebook and Instagram is the computer algorithm used to push certain images and accounts based on engagement. Teens curious about diet-themed posts will soon have a feed full of them; click on #fitspo (the hashtag for fitness inspiration content), and you’ll open the app next time to more images of skinny, muscular women in provocative poses, volunteering how you can look like them if you just drink lemon water all day.
“Teenagers haven’t consented to being bombarded with material that could be dangerous to them,” says Jennifer Mills, a clinical psychologist and researcher at York University who has studied Instagram’s negative effects on body image. “They didn’t say, yes please, give me more of these things that are making me miserable.”
This environment can be particularly perilous for young women at risk of an eating disorder, who are also often struggling with anxiety and low-self esteem. “It sucks them into a sphere where all they are seeing makes them feel inadequate,” says Lea Thaler, a clinical psychologist at the Eating Disorders Continuum at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute in Montreal.
When Madyson Cheverie’s leadership and sports activities were cancelled last year because of the pandemic, the 16-year-old in Cochrane, Alta., began struggling with anxiety and worrying about gaining weight. She slowly stopped eating, losing 35 pounds in a few months. Instagram, she says, was full of advice for skinny smoothies and extreme diets, and pictures of women whose bodies she envied. “You can tell yourselves it’s a filter, but there is always a chance it isn’t.”
She says she started gaming the app’s algorithm, deliberating clicking on posts knowing the app would give her more of them. “I didn’t see it as a problem. It was like motivation.” Eventually, her weight loss alarmed her mom and her friends; when she returned to sports, she didn’t have the strength to serve a volleyball over the net. Her doctor told her she was in danger of being hospitalized.
Abeer Amir, now a first-year university student at the University of British Columbia, tells a similar story. Locked down and spending most of her time studying in her room, the then 15-year-old starting skipping meals, losing 20 pounds on her 5-foot-3 frame. Instagram became a source of inspiration. She didn’t even have to go looking for posts about dieting – they came up when she opened the app. She found them impossible to resist: “I was feeling terrible about how I looked.” Instagram seemed to have the answers, even though spending time on the app, “made my self esteem go down the drain.”
Ultimately, apps such as Instagram are only holding up the mirror to a society obsessed with the size of a woman’s body. But unlike the glossy fashion magazine that made past generations of teenagers feel inferior, Instagram doesn’t pile up under the bed, forgotten; it is ever present, beckoning from your phone, a demanding, addictive, social accessory of modern adolescence. It is not populated by supermodels, but by your friends, and strangers who seem like friends. And it requires participation: Teens are expected to throw their own images into the virtual beauty contest. They spend hours picking the perfect selfie, analyzing their faces for flaws, filtering out imperfections, getting friends to approve their choice, prepping their peers to praise their posts, and then taking them down, disheartened, when they don’t get the right comments.
“Once you go down the path of Photoshopping and editing your pictures, you don’t come back from that,” says Luciana Rosu-Sieza, executive director of the Bulimia Anorexia Nervosa Association in Windsor, Ont. Studies have found that even when teens know that images have been edited to make eyes bigger and waists tinier, they still compare themselves with the computer-generated standard. The comments on Instagram, experts point out, often focus on beauty and appearance, even if the actual post is about an accomplishment. Offline, people don’t gush about looks in the same way, so the message a teenager may internalize is that her real-world face is not good enough.
Today, in Grade 11, Ms. Cheverie is recovering. After months of therapy and her mom carefully overseeing her diet, she has almost returned to her full weight, and can serve the volleyball again. She says she sees now how Instagram played a cheerleader roll in her eating disorder, and she spends less time on it.
Ms. Amir also took a break from Instagram as she recovered and gained her weight back. Her use now, she says, is under control. She still has food on her feed, but the focus is cooking, not dieting. “When I have doubts, I self talk it out.” She does, however, still get her friends to approve a pic before posting. “I am self conscious,” she says. “I don’t want to post something where I haven’t been assured it’s a good idea.”
Perhaps this is the moment of reckoning for social media sites such as Instagram, as researchers hope. But regulating online content after so many years of a hands-off approach will be complicated, and there is always a new app waiting to go viral. The video-based app, TikTok, for instance, also uses algorithms and is hardly scrubbed of potentially harmful content.
So what do parents and teens do in the meantime? Ms. Rosu-Sieza suggests not making appearance-based comments on social media. Dr. Woodruff points out that parents are also influencers: When moms filter their own pictures, or worry about their weight online, their teens will often follow suit. Parents need to get on the sites and learn how they work, so they can have informed conversations with their children.
Treatment for eating disorders often includes changing the way teens interact with social media – an approach that can work for anyone wanting to alter their habits. Teens are advised to use social media more mindfully – to pay attention to how they feel after spending time on certain apps, how individual posts change their mood and the reasons why they are drawn to certain content. They are encouraged to try to take control of the algorithms by removing or ignoring images in their feed that are unhealthy or negative, and by spending more time on positive accounts.
That’s not easy, of course. One search of “how to lose five pounds,” and you’re starting over again. “It takes effort,” Dr. Thaler says. “We’ve become passive consumers of the content as opposed to actively choosing what we want.”
Dr. Mills hopes this current call for regulation becomes action. “We are up against too much human nature to crave novelty and variety and stimulation,” she says. Counting on a profit-oriented company to police itself is unrealistic, and putting the onus on teenagers and children to protect themselves from toxic material is irresponsible. “At what point do we step in and say that we have a societal responsibility to keep young people healthy and happy?
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