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Instagram and Teen Mental Health: a Crisis Ignored.

Instagram causing depression? Anxiety? Eating disorders? Well, “people use Instagram because it’s a competition. That’s the fun part,” says a former Instagram executive.

[TW // this article discusses mental health, suicide, and eating disorders.]

This week’s course material involves managing advances in technology and subsequent business responsibility. In line with our readings and lectures, you may have seen recent congressional testimony regarding Instagram’s responsibility in the negative mental health of teenagers. One video of Senator Richard Blumenthal asking a Facebook representative “When will you commit to ending finsta?” is making its rounds on social media.

These hearings are in response to a leaked March 2020 slide presentation posted to Instagram’s internal message board. Instagram is a social media app that captures the attention of over one billion users. Roughly 40 percent of Instagram users are younger than 22 years old. The Wall Street Journal, which obtained these leaks, reports on the staggering data.

According to the Wall Street Journal, “thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse” (Wells et al. 2021). A whopping 66 percent of teenage girls and 40 percent of teenage boys experience “negative social comparison” (Wells et al.) As a result, the company’s internal data acknowledges that among teens who reported suicidal thoughts, between 6-13 percent traced their desire to kill themselves to Instagram alone. You can read the full leaks here.

The Wall Street Journal highlights one slide that reads, “aspects of Instagram exacerbate each other to create a perfect storm.” This storm refers to putting pressure on teenagers to only share the best moments of their life and compare their experiences with their fellow followers. Thus, leaving teenagers with higher levels of depression, lower self-esteem, and a higher rate of developing an eating disorder. The person who leaked these slides to the Wall Street Journal, Frances Haugen, explains that “[the harm done by Instagram] actually makes [teenagers] use the app more. And so, they end up in this feedback cycle where they hate their bodies more and more” (as cited by Guzman, 2021). However, Vice President of Global Affairs Nick Clegg has since responded on behalf of Facebook and Instagram.

Clegg fires back at the Wall Street Journal for “cherry-picking” the leaked Haugen documents. Specifically, Clegg articulates that “Instagram understands the significant responsibility that comes with operating a global platform. We take it seriously, and we don’t shy away from scrutiny and criticism. But we fundamentally reject this mischaracterization of our work” (Guzman, 2021). In contrast, the leaked documents explicitly show that Instagram is aware of the seriousness of the mental health crisis, has made little effort to address the crisis, and actively plays the crisis down in public.

Overall, these conversations are increasingly important in light of Instagram’s push to release “Instagram Kids,” an app designed for children 13 years old or younger. At a recent congressional hearing, company head Mark Zuckerberg was asked whether the company has studied Instagram’s effects on children ahead of the Instagram Kids app launch. Zuckerberg’s response? “I believe the answer is yes” (as cited by Well et al. 2021). 

Class Discussion: In light of these leaks, who should be held responsible for this mental health crisis: the users, parents, Instagram, or the government? What solutions do you think should be offered to help fix this ongoing issue?

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