Social media apps exploit self-esteem issues
If Instagram came with a security warning, what would it look like? Warning: the people on this app are less perfect than they appear.
The popular photo-sharing app became a trending topic last week after a the Wall Street newspaper The investigation found that Facebook, which owns Instagram, not only knows that its app is toxic to teenage girls, but in fact has come to this conclusion based on its own internal research.
According to an internal Facebook presentation reviewed by the Newspaper, 32% of teenage girls said Instagram makes them feel bad about their bodies when they feel bad. Over 40% of Instagram users are under 22, and 22 million teens log onto Instagram every day. (You must be at least 13 years old to use Instagram.)
“Teens blame Instagram for increasing rates of anxiety and depression,” reads another slide in the internal presentation. “This reaction was spontaneous and consistent across all groups.”
Instagram’s story is part of a Newspaper investigation, which also examined other failures of Facebook. And yet, despite these findings, Facebook seems to hate doing anything with them. In fact, the Newspaper found that the company continues to publicly downplay Instagram’s negative effects on teens.
History has renewed calls for tighter regulations on social media, as well as removing a proposed kid-friendly version of Instagram, which seems like a terrible idea from all angles. But increased regulation, or even treating the app like tobacco or alcohol, is unlikely to be enough to convince teenage girls to take down Instagram. For many of its more ardent users, the app is too ingrained in their lives.
Instagram is an ambitious photo app and photo app. Instagram’s ambitious qualities have spawned both the influencer industry – now a multi-billion dollar concern – as well as a phenomenon called Instagram Face, in which women use filters – or, in some cases, undergo full plastic surgery – to achieve the contoured appearance of pillow lips that a New York Times the writer called it “sexy babe meets Jessica Rabbit”.
Users offer each other validation via heart-shaped “likes”; it is an economy of attention based on appearance. It’s not hard to see how self-esteem can become entangled in all of this, especially since content created by young people is often forward-looking. They take selfies. They present Reels, Instagram’s shareable short videos. They are the content.
Even the idea of a “personal brand” gives the impression that one has to be a marketable entity. It’s no wonder that many young people place a disproportionate importance on followers, engagement, shares and likes over their worth as a human being. It is also interesting to note that these young people grew up on the Internet; depending on how connected their parents are, some may even have had digital fingerprints before they were born.
Instagram boss Adam Mosseri argued on a WSJ podcast that social comparison and anxiety are social issues, not Instagram-specific issues. And he’s right, these are social issues that predate Instagram and the internet. Before Instagram, fashion magazines were the architects of unrealistic beauty standards. Before that, it was probably something else. But there is one crucial difference: the models were generally not his peers. It wasn’t, except in the rarest of cases, a pouting friend from the cover of a glossy magazine.
Mr Mosseri said he was keen to make sure Instagram “does not exacerbate these problems”. A first step might be to admit, publicly, that he has already done so.