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Friday, October 22, 2021

Explained: Why Instagram is under the lens for its ‘negative impact’ on teen girls

Instagram for Kids is supposed to be an app for children under the age of 13. However, its rollout has been paused following scrutiny over how it impacts teen girls and their mental health.

Written by Shruti Dhapola , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: September 30, 2021 10:41:33 am
Bowing to pressure, Facebook said it will “pause" its work on a kids' version of Instagram. (AP Photo/Jenny Kane, File)

Facebook is pausing its move to launch an ‘Instagram Kids’ app following scrutiny from lawmakers and other groups over how it impacts teen girls and their mental health.

Facebook’s Global Head of Safety Antigone Davis is slated to appear before the US Senate Commerce Subcommittee Thursday on the issue of protecting kids online and the mental harm that teens face on the platform based on a recent report by The Wall Street Journal.

But, how does Instagram get connected to the mental health of teens, and is the negative impact only limited to the young? IndianExpress.com explains.

What did the WSJ report reveal about Instagram and its impact on teens?

The WSJ report is based on Facebook’s own internal research, which showed that Instagram was negatively impacting teenage audiences. In the case of teenage girls, the app likely contributed to worsening body image issues.

The report references one slide from Instagram’s research, which showed that the app made body image issues worse for one in three teen girls, who were surveyed. Another slide said teens blamed the app for increasing anxiety and depression across groups. Around 13 per cent of British and 6 per cent American teen users, who were part of the study, reported suicidal thoughts and linked them to Instagram, according to the report.

Further, a majority of Instagram users who said they felt ‘unattractive’ found that the feelings began on the app. The report also spoke to several teenage girls who pointed out how using the app made their body-image issues worse, and in some cases led to eating disorders.

What is Facebook’s defense?

In a detailed response disputing WSJ’s claims, Facebook Vice-President and Head of Research Pratiti Raychoudhury accused the publication of cherry-picking facts. “Our internal research is part of our effort to minimize the bad on our platforms and maximize the good. We invest in this research to proactively identify where we can improve — which is why the worst possible results are highlighted in the internal slides,” she wrote.

Regarding body issues in girls and that the app was toxic for girls, she wrote that their research showed that “on 11 of 12 well-being issues, teenage girls who said they struggled with those difficult issues also said that Instagram made them better rather than worse.”

Facebook’s claim is that “using Instagram helps” teenagers when they are struggling with issues they “have always faced”. The company also made public the slide that was referred to by the WSJ report, adding that it was only on the issue of body image that “teen girls who reported struggling with the issue said Instagram made it worse as compared to the other 11 areas.” It said on other issues such as loneliness, sadness, etc the app made girls feel better.

Facebook claims that some aspects of the research, such as “teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression” were based on inputs from only 40 teens. Given the app has more than a billion users, it says that the responses of 40 users are not representative.

It should be noted that Facebook has not publicly released all the data around its research on the app and its impact on teenage audiences.

So, why is Instagram stopping the Kids app?

In a separate post, Instagram head Adam Mosseri wrote that while they believe an Instagram for Kids is the right thing to do, they are pausing the work. “We’ll use this time to work with parents, experts, and policymakers to demonstrate the value, and need for this product. We’ll continue to build opt-in parental supervision tools for teens,” he added.

Instagram for Kids is supposed to be an app for children under the age of 13. Currently, the age limit to be on Instagram is 13. Mosseri also wrote that “kids are getting phones younger and younger, misrepresenting their age, and downloading apps that are meant for those 13 or older,” which is why they wanted to launch an app for them.

In their view, the kids’ version of Instagram would give parents more control and supervision compared to the regular app. He says this should not be seen as “an acknowledgement that the project is a bad idea.”

Instagram for kids will be aimed at children between 10-12 years and will require parental permission to join. Further, “it won’t have ads, and it will have age-appropriate content and features. Parents can supervise the time their children spend on the app and oversee who can message them, who can follow them, and who they can follow,” he explained.

But why is Instagram being singled out for ‘negative’ mental health? Isn’t all social media doing this to users?

While it is true that studies have shown that social media, in general, is fueling anxiety and depression in users across age groups, Instagram needs special focus. The addictive nature of Instagram, its emphasis on ‘best moments’, filters that enhance skin tone or lighten the eyes, and the dominance of influencers who promote a glamorous lifestyle, can create a toxic environment. And for teens who might be struggling with self-worth, this can be a potent combination. As one of the researchers told WSJ that ‘Instagram is like a drug’ and it needs to be studied.

In fact, when it comes to body image issues, the impact is not just limited to teenage girls. Even adult women have suffered from body image problems due to Instagram. The app was slammed by the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), which wrote a scathing letter in May this year.

The health agency called out the app for not doing enough to crack down on the promotions of ‘Apetamin’, a weight gain drug being peddled by many influencers on the platform. Apetamin, which has serious side effects including liver failure, is often used by women who desire a more curvaceous figure.

While Instagram said in response that it took “down accounts that sell and advertise Apetamin”, it is not too hard to find others doing the same thing using search functions on the app.

While Instagram is trying to fix some of its problems, there’s no doubt it is the place where everyone wants to maintain an image. And for teens–who might already be struggling– the pressures of the platform can make living up to these ‘ideal’ images a lot harder. This is exactly why the US Senate is questioning Facebook executives this week.

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