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Facebook knew details about Instagram’s impact on mental health of teenagers: Report

Teenagers, particularly girls, blamed Instagram for anxiety and depression, according to Facebook’s own research.

Internal research conducted by Facebook shows that a large number of teenagers, particularly teenage girls, trace a significant amount of anxiety and mental health problems to Instagram, the Wall Street Journal reported. “Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse,” a slide in an internal presentation on the results of Facebook’s research said, per WSJ.

These findings, finalised in March 2020, were not made public by the company. In a letter written to US lawmakers after the research was conducted, Facebook refused to provide details of research the company conducted on the impact of its social media platforms on young people. The reticence to share this information provoked comparisons to the tobacco industry in the 20th century by two people cited in the WSJ report — Senator Richard Blumenthal and psychology professor Jean Twenge said that Facebook’s behaviour was reminiscent of how the tobacco industry knew that cigarettes were carcinogenic, and did not agree with this assessment until much later.

Facebook is reportedly planning to create an “Instagram for Kids” that leads to fewer of these issues, but the idea is controversial — a group of attorneys general in the US wrote to the company opposing the idea, saying that “this platform appeals primarily to children who otherwise do not or would not have an Instagram account”.

What the findings say: The findings reported by Facebook boil down to these observations, apart from the one mentioned above:

  • One in five teenagers said Instagram makes them feel bad about themselves.
  • Teenagers blame Instagram for increased anxiety and depression, “unprompted”.
  • 6–13% of teens who had suicidal thoughts attributed Instagram as a cause.
  • An experiment to hide “likes” from posts didn’t significantly improve mental health outcomes.

What this could mean in India

The mental health issues caused by social media companies are prevalent enough to have spurred micro-industries: from books like Your Happiness Was Hacked to comedians like Bo Burnham whose comedy frequently addresses the pitfalls of the performative culture we have fallen into with the help of platforms like Instagram — “If you can live your life without an audience, do it” — it is hardly a secret that social media platforms are having significant mental health impacts.

India already deals with an extraordinary mental health crisis — with high suicide rates and a significant portion of the population dealing with depression even before the pandemic, combined with difficult access to quality mental healthcare. Young people — who make up the majority of the Indian population — are especially vulnerable to the worst outcomes of social media algorithms that can make people feel bad about themselves.

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To make matters worse, India has leapfrogged to the digital age without the kind of accompanying improvement in other parts of the infrastructure, such as schooling and healthcare, that can be essential counterforces to the toll on social media users’ mental health. While Instagram has been engaging US lawmakers and researchers on the platform’s mental health impact (per WSJ’s reporting), Silicon Valley companies have consistently displayed very different standards on their social responsibilities in India compared to their home markets. All this could mean that there’s a ticking mental health time bomb, one that nobody is in a position to defuse in time.

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I cover the digital content ecosystem and telecom for MediaNama.

MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.



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