The general public is reasonably aware of social media’s effects on mental health. But Instagram’s research reveals it’s uniquely formatted to negatively impact users’ body image and encourage social comparison. Instagram admits its most harmful features are baked into its core, according to the report. These include its Explore page, which pushes algorithm-selected content to users based on demographic information and previous post interactions, as well as the app’s overall focus on body and lifestyle. When a user goes to take a photo in Stories mode, they’re offered thousands of filters aimed at enhancing the user’s facial structure and features, including ones that appear to lighten the user’s skin or slim their face. Another dangerous aspect of Instagram’s interface may also be found in its infinite scroll, where users are able to perpetually scroll through content without ever needing to refresh the page or hit a “next” button, resulting in a literally endless feed of “perfect” bodies and faces. According to Instagram itself, these features “exacerbate each other to create a perfect storm.”
“We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,” the presentation detailing Instagram’s research findings stated. The research team comprised Facebook employees who specialize or have backgrounds in data science, computer science, psychology, marketing, and quantitative and qualitative analysis. Though it’s a relief to see such variety, one can’t help but wonder if the app’s users would be better off if more of the team came from specialties such as mental illness and eating disorder treatment, gender studies, or other social services—and from the very start, not after the fact.
Even while discussing eating disorders and suicidal thoughts, Instagram’s internal slide deck remained committed to conversion. “Instagram is well positioned to resonate and win with young people,” WSJ says one slide read, as if Instagram was ready to move on from the dire subject matter it’d sought out. “There is a path to growth if Instagram can continue their trajectory.” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has predictably downplayed Instagram’s negative effects on teen mental health, saying connections made via social media can have positive mental health benefits. But no one is denying that interpersonal connections can be good for one’s mind and soul; rather, they’re suggesting (and proving) toxic thoughts and habits arise from viewing hundreds of photos taken on the best days of strangers’ lives.
For anyone reading and thinking, “Well, yeah, and the sky is blue,” know that you’re not alone—but that Instagram’s report is valuable nonetheless. Though there’s usually plenty of reason to question the accuracy of most internal investigations, Instagram’s research reveals a more unfortunate truth than one would expect to come from its own presentations. Even following such regrettable findings, it’s possible to be hopeful that Instagram’s research will help convince future app developers and social media connoisseurs that apps don’t exist in a vacuum, and that they have deeply sobering effects on our lives.