Despite findings on Instagram’s contributions to teen depression, Facebook plans a version for kids

in September 27th, 2021
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Facebook wants to make a new Instagram product for children under 13, which lawmakers have been pushing back on since March. When directly asked about the platform’s effect on teen wellbeing, the Head of Instagram, Adam Mosseri, said it was “small” based on the research he’d seen. A few months later, two senators called on founder Mark Zuckerberg to release that research.

While Facebook refused, the Wall Street Journal recently obtained leaked internal messages between executives, employees, and researchers along with five presentations detailing their findings and more. The research covers three years; here are the major trends noted:

  • Many younger users attribute feeling bad about themselves and their bodies to Instagram. Specifically, 1 in 5 American teens say Instagram makes them feel worse about their body while 2 in 5 British teens report feeling unattractive since they started using the platform.
  • Teens also blame Instagram for increased rates of anxiety and depression. Among those who reported suicidal thoughts, 14% of British users and 6% of American users traced those thoughts back to their Instagram usage.
  • And overall, Instagram harms mental wellbeing through pressure to match the financial and physical lifestyles of influencers, getting validation through “likes” or followers, inappropriate ad targeting, and the oversexualization of girls. The latter is particularly damaging for Black girls, who are often assumed to be older than they are and critiqued more frequently about their bodies.

And while many teens are aware of these problems, the “fear of missing out” (a phenomenon still under much study) makes it hard to resist. This young user base is also crucial to the company’s $100B in annual revenue. Over 40% of users are under 22 years old and 22 million teens are logging onto the platform daily.

So what has Facebook done to address the problem? A year ago, they announced hiding “likes” to reduce anxiety around approval, but researchers say it was ineffective and skeptics say it was just for the optics. Researchers have also tried to present solutions to Facebook, but many say it is challenging to get employees on board; one researcher said, “We’re standing between people and their bonuses.”

What solutions have researchers discussed with Facebook employees?

  • First, a tool encouraging users to take a break from the app. This is one of the few ideas researchers were able to get buy-in on.
  • One idea seen on internal messaging boards suggests encouraging goofy face filters over beautifying ones. These filters use augmented reality to adjust a person’s appearance. For example, by minimizing their cheeks, making eyes bigger, or giving the false appearance of makeup.
  • Another is to reduce exposure to celebrity content about fashion and lifestyle and instead prioritize content from close friends. Some pushed back though, with one employee commenting, “Isn’t that all IG is about?”

Now, in response to the leak, senators are asking Facebook to abandon plans to launch “Instagram youth,” the platform for those under 13. Zuckerberg and other company executives have been defending their plans, saying this age group is already on the platform so it would be better to give them their own version.

🎬 Take Action 

If you have or know a teen on Instagram, consider reviewing the insights and tips from Harvard School of Education on reducing a teen’s social media anxiety without completely stripping them of their digital lives.

Resource Center:

  • Wall Street Journal (Where we found this story) 2 weeks old | 31 minutes long
  • NPR Lawmakers push back on Facebook 2 weeks old  | 6 minutes long
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What’s not to like? :(

Art Credit: ASCII Text Art 4 U

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