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Whistleblower's testimony has resurfaced Facebook's Instagram problem

A 2018 survey found about 43% of teens said they feel pressure to only post content on social media that makes them look good to others.
Jenny Kane
A 2018 survey found about 43% of teens said they feel pressure to only post content on social media that makes them look good to others.

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen implored Congress on Tuesday to take action against the social media giant, which she accused of willfully putting users in danger in pursuit of "astronomical profits."

Haugen spoke before the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection months after leaking internal communications and research, including documents showing the company was aware of the risks that Instagram can pose to the mental health of children and teens.

"The choices being made inside of Facebook are disastrous for our children, for our public safety, for privacy and for our democracy. And that is why we must demand Facebook changes," Haugen told lawmakers.

Among the documents released are studies showing that Instagram, which Facebook bought in 2012, negatively affects young users' mental health, particularly young girls. According to one Facebook study leaked by Haugen, 13.5% of U.K. teen girls said Instagram worsens suicidal thoughts. Another leaked study found 17% of teen girls say their eating disorders got worse after Instagram use.

Social media and self esteem

"It's definitely not surprising at all," Nina Roehl, a reporter with YR media who is currently getting her undergraduate degree at San Francisco State University, told NPR's All Things Considered.

Roehl, now 21, has spent nearly half of her life on social media and has been reporting on teen behavior on all sorts of platforms for years, including Instagram. And after having gone through middle school, high school and now college on social media, she says some of the most common themes that arise have to do with insecurity and body image issues, especially among girls and young women.

"They see a lot of these images on social media ... and that creates these unrealistic beauty standards" that ultimately affects their self-esteem, she said.

That is true even when users are aware that an image may be layered with filters and heavily edited. Regardless of how savvy young observers may be about how posts are crafted to represent an idealized version of reality, Roehl said they still succumb to a validation-seeking cycle that can be quite demoralizing.

Impressionable users, said Roehl, see the images and think, "Oh, that is what I should look like because I see this person who gets a bunch of likes and a bunch of comments and so people are seeking that validation."

More and more young people are on Instagram

Roehl's personal and professional experience is widespread, according to Monica Anderson, who studies young people and technology at the Pew Research Center.

In a2018 Pew survey of teens' social media habits ages 13 to 17, about 43% said they feel pressure to only post content on social media that makes them look good to others. Another 37% said they feel pressure to share things that will get a lot of likes or comments. At the same time, some 45% said they feel overwhelmed with the amount of drama that they see on these platforms, Anderson told NPR.

The findings are highly worrisome, according to Anderson, especially given the growing popularity of Instagram among young people.

"We have definitely seen an explosion in the number of teens that are using Instagram," she said, explaining that in 2018, about 70% of teens surveyed said they used the platform — a 20% increase from an earlier report.

Other research has looked into the risks that social media can carry for young people. A four year study of Montreal teens published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry in 2019 found social media was "very robustly" related to increases in depressive symptoms for many of the same reasons described by Roehl.

Researchers found similar patterns in teens after watching television, but the difference, they explained, is that in TV, viewers often see idealized versions of life that are different from their own. But with platforms like Instagram, they are consuming idealized versions of their peers and that can trigger a comparison loop that can blur the lines of reality for adolescents whose brains are still developing.

Facebook says it did not withhold information

In an interview Monday with NPR, Neil Potts, Facebook vice president for trust and security, denied allegations that Facebook, and Mark Zuckerberg in particular, withheld damaging information that was revealed in the recent leaks.

With regard to the Instagram teen research, Potts said the majority of respondents said Facebook and Instagram "have a net positive on their mental health in these areas."

Additionally, Potts said, for a subset of people who already were struggling with anxiety and depression, most said they felt better after engaging on Facebook and Instagram. But, he conceded that when it comes to body image issues, girls reported feeling worse after leaving the sites.

"We recognize that, and we'll use that research to try to close those gaps. That's why I say we do that research," Potts said.

Last week the company announced it was "pausing" work on Instagram Kids, a platform intended for users under 13.

Editor's note: Facebook is among NPR's financial supporters.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Vanessa Romo
Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.