Facebook must act upon its apparent harm to its users’ mental health

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Maya Demchak-Gottlieb

The public has always been aware that Instagram is theoretically harmful to its users’ mental health, but a stinging The Wall Street Journal report revealed that Facebook, Inc., owner of Instagram, has concrete evidence  the service is especially damaging to its young target audience.

The report exposed the findings of internal research studies that Facebook has repeatedly refused to share with the public. Facebook’s decision to prioritize profit over the common good poses a threat to society at large.

In the age of a mental health epidemic, regulations must be established to eliminate the unsafe factors contributing to the crisis.

“We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,” Facebook concluded, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Facebook’s research also found that Instagram harmed its male users.

“In the deep dive Facebook’s researchers conducted into mental health in 2019, they found that 14% of boys in the U.S. said Instagram made them feel worse about themselves. In their report on body image in 2020, Facebook’s researchers found that 40% of teen boys experience negative social comparison,” according to the report..

Both boys and girls experience body image issues that can be exacerbated by the unrealistic portrayal of the average Instagram user. This results in a lack of confidence and fosters a negative self-image that can range from discontent to depression.

When Instagram users look in the mirror, they expect to see the visual fabrication they are accustomed to seeing on the app. The unfiltered reality they are met with fosters feelings of inadequacy that are carried into their social interactions.

“Among teens who reported suicidal thoughts, 13% of British users and 6% of American users traced the desire to kill themselves to Instagram,” a Facebook presentation showed, as reported by The Wall Street Journal.

The internal reports defy past comments by Instagram head Adam Mosseri, in which he said that research he had seen suggested the app’s effects on teen well-being were likely “quite small.”   The findings also contradict Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s assertion at a congressional hearing in March.

“The research that we’ve seen is that using social apps to connect with other people can have positive mental-health benefits,”  Zuckerberg said.

These misleading statements were made to conceal the devastating effects of the crown jewel in Facebook’s social media empire.

Even more alarming is Facebook’s plan to unveil a  version of the service for children younger than 13. Such a product will broaden the reach of Instagram’s toxicity and negatively impact children most susceptible to the service’s negative effects.

Instead of rolling out new, potentially hazardous products, Instagram needs to redesign the existing service. Disclaimers for photoshopped and filtered images, a shift away from beauty filters, an adjustment to the app’s algorithm and an end to the focus on glamorized celebrity lifestyle must be the priority.

Karina Newton, Instagram’s head of public policy, responded to the report in a blog post where she said that Instagram is exploring features that can steer users to different content, instead of dwelling on content that fosters negative self-comparisons.

While this is a step in the right direction, action has yet to be taken. In order to ensure that Instagram executes positive change, consumers and elected representatives must demand the transparency that has been lacking thus far.

In the meantime, users must be aware of how the app shapes their self-perception and need to take steps to counter the negative messaging from the content they consume.