Facebook's own research shows its Instagram app is toxic for teen girls

Facebook has conducted internal research on the impacts of its Instagram app on mental health, and found the app makes body image issues worse for teenage girls.

The research was leaked, and first reported by the Wall Street Journal.

The research, started in 2019, shows 32% of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse. Teens also blame Instagram for anxiety and depression increases, and the research also showed 6% of users in the United States with suicidal thoughts traced it back to Instagram.  

"Unfortunately this is not new news for us in the business because we have been dealing with this for some time," said Elizabeth Maybalian, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Teen Therapy Center in Woodland Hills. 

Maybalian said there are a number of impacts from the app.

"It's body image. It's about not being enough, not having enough, not being popular enough but a big portion of it is about how you look. It's very much about the likes and that plays into their self esteem and their confidence because if you're not getting as many likes as your friend is getting, that means  that people are not caring as much about you as they are the other person. It's about portraying this image of having the best life, the perfect life, having the best friends, being surrounded by fun and laughter," said Maybalian.

She said there are increases in reports of anxiety and depression that spill into adulthood too.

"We're seeing a lot more anxiety. We're seeing a lot more depression because even as adults people are not feeling good enough about themselves. They're comparing themselves to other people. They're comparing themselves to people's jobs. They're comparing themselves to wealth and what people have," she said.

The concerns have heightened during the pandemic, according to Maybalian.

"Unfortunately this is what our children are dealing with and the pandemic has made it a lot worse. Being home, not having as many outlets, and not having as much  socialization, I think children fell more into the trap of being pulled into things like social media," she said.

Emma Jane Kennedy, a 17-year-old senior in high school, said she can relate to the concerns.  

"I don't think it's often communicated through teens or communicated amongst teens, but I think once you self reflect and realize where your issues stem  from, you can kind of discover that it comes from social media," she said.

She said there are reasons why teens are most impacted by social media.

Get your top stories delivered daily! Sign up for FOX 11’s Fast 5 newsletter. And, get breaking news alerts in the FOX 11 News app. Download for iOS or Android.

"I think teens are most impacted mostly because we're most susceptible to being insecure because of the stage of life we're in. We're growing into our bodies. We're seeing what other people look like and what we should look like and seeing the unrealistic, not natural bodies that people look up to and admire kind of gives us a false hope and a false image of what we should look like," said Emma Jane.

Emma Jane believes there are ways to overcome the issues.  

"I think the first step to try to overcome it is realizing that it stems from social media and what the impacts of looking at other people's bodies and comparing and contrasting does to yourself. I think that's the first step to progress in overcoming these issues," she said.

Her mother, Amber Kennedy, has concerns too.

"It's not surprising to me [the findings]. I think that social media has been a constant conversation in our home from the time my kids were little. They've always had boundaries. They've always had screen time. It's a real thing," she said.

She said it is a lot of work for parents.

"Not only are teenagers the first group to go through a whole upbringing of social media, we're also the first group of parents to go through it so there's gotta be a lot of wins and a lot of losses and hopefully we  learn a lot along the way. Although I know social media is an issue and there are a lot of negative connotations to it, I also think the teenagers today, they're really aware and they're actively trying to combat it," said Amber.

Maybalian said it's important for parents to establish a place of trust with open communication for their teens.

"Approach the subject in a calm and neutral fashion, come from a place of wanting to learn from your child and understand from your child instead of being accusatory or pointing fingers. Listen for changes in vocabulary where your teen is starting to have more negative conversation or negative language around their body. Are they focusing on specific parts of their body that they never really spoke of before? Are they talking about being too fat, too thin, too curvy, not curvy enough," she said.

Maybalian also stressed the need to set boundaries.

"I think it is about setting boundaries around social media usage and having conversations about what they're and who they're following. Instagram has great resources, has great brands, companies, celebrities that are promoting the uniqueness of who we are, being independent, surrounding ourselves with positive messages so I think it's teaching our children to balance them. It's a tool to enjoy but to always keep it in perspective," she said.

She reiterated the importance of mental health.

"If you're not doing well mentally, your body is gonna suffer. You're not gonna sleep well. Your appetite is gonna change. You're gonna start having physical symptoms so it's very important to be aware of your mental health," she said.

Instagram shared the following statement with FOX 11: 

The Wall Street Journal published a story today about internal research we’re doing to understand young people’s experiences on Instagram. While the story focuses on a limited set of findings and casts them in a negative light, we stand by this research. It demonstrates our commitment to understanding complex and difficult issues young people may struggle with, and informs all the work we do to help those experiencing these issues.

The question on many people’s minds is if social media is good or bad for people. The research on this is mixed; it can be both. At Instagram, we look at the benefits and the risks of what we do. We’re proud that our app can give voice to those who have been marginalized, that it can help friends and families stay connected from all corners of the world, that it can prompt societal change; but we also know it can be a place where people have negative experiences, as the Journal called out today. Our job is to make sure people feel good about the experience they have on Instagram, and achieving that is something we care a great deal about.

The research in context:

The internet has drastically increased how many people we all connect to, and how much information we consume. As a society, we’re working out how to process these changes, and what’s right for each of us individually. At Instagram, we hire the best researchers and scientists we can to look at these changes, and to help us understand how they impact people. We also consult with leading experts and researchers around the world to help us see beyond our own work.

External research into the impact social media has on people is still relatively nascent and evolving, and social media itself is changing rapidly. Some researchers argue that we need more evidence to understand social media's impact on people. Each study has limitations and caveats, so no single study is going to be conclusive. We need to rely on an ever-growing body of multi-method research and expert input.

Our findings:

The research on the effects of social media on people’s well-being is mixed, and our own research mirrors external research. Social media isn’t inherently good or bad for people. Many find it helpful one day, and problematic the next. What seems to matter most is how people use social media, and their state of mind when they use it.

A mixed methods study from Harvard described the "see-saw" of positive and negative experiences that US teens have on social media. The same person may have an important conversation with their friend on one day, and fall out with them the next day. According to research by Pew Internet on teens in the US, 81% of teens said that social media makes them feel more connected to their friends, while 26% reported social media makes them feel worse about their lives.

Our findings were similar. Many said Instagram makes things better or has no effect, but some, particularly those who were already feeling down, said Instagram may make things worse. In the research world, this isn’t surprising or unexpected. Issues like negative social comparison and anxiety exist in the world, so they’re going to exist on social media too. That doesn’t change the fact that we take these findings seriously, and we set up a specific effort to respond to this research and change Instagram for the better.

What we’re doing:

We’ve done extensive work around bullying, suicide and self-injury, and eating disorders, to help make Instagram a safe and supportive place for everyone. Based on our research and feedback from experts, we’ve developed features so people can protect themselves from bullying, we’ve given everyone the option to hide like counts, and we’ve continued to connect people who may be struggling with local support organizations.

We’re increasingly focused on addressing negative social comparison and negative body image. One idea we think has promise is finding opportunities to jump in if we see people dwelling on certain types of content. From our research, we’re starting to understand the types of content some people feel may contribute to negative social comparison, and we’re exploring ways to prompt them to look at different topics if they’re repeatedly looking at this type of content. We’re cautiously optimistic that these nudges will help point people towards content that inspires and uplifts them, and to a larger extent, will shift the part of Instagram’s culture that focuses on how people look.

We also want to be more transparent about the research we do, both internally and in collaboration with external researchers. We’ll continue to look for opportunities to work with more partners to publish independent studies in this area, and we’re working through how we can allow external researchers more access to our data in a way that respects people’s privacy. We’ll have more to share on our research, and new features we’re building, soon.