Published in September, the Wall Street Journal’s collection of articles entitled “The Facebook Files” indicate that Facebook Inc./Meta and CEO Mark Zuckerberg have extensive knowledge of the many, deep flaws in their systems that harm their users. In particular, the exposé “Facebook Knows Instagram Is Toxic for Teen Girls, Company Documents Show” showcased the effect of Instagram, a Facebook-run social media platform on teenage girls’ mental health. The investigation found that Instagram makes body-image issues worse for one-third of girls by contributing to a culture of social comparison – a phenomenon in which people assess their value in relation to the attractiveness, wealth, and success of others.
Enlightening for some audiences, the piece only supported what many teenage girls have known for years. “Wasn’t news to me” and “I was definitely not surprised” are reactions shared by Phoebie Heaton ‘22 and Alexa Romney ‘22, respectively. These young women know first-hand, through their engagement with Instagram, that “there’s a heavy focus on comparing one’s lives [on the app] … in addition to only showing the best parts of oneself or one’s life,” said Morgan Gates ‘22. Heaton added, “Instagram is known to be toxic, especially for teenage girls, because it intensifies body-image issues.”
While Facebook’s internal documents show that the company is aware of the problem, its denial is less than satisfactory. In fact, Facebook has downplayed the negative effects of its platforms on teens and has not made any substantial changes to its functions.
While young people, for the most part, think Facebook is at fault, they also understand that the issue is not clear-cut. “I don’t know exactly the method-behind-the-madness in terms of algorithms, but they definitely do push specific content, usually negative content, to keep people on the app,” Gates said. “Yes, it’s part of the business — but it’s hurting their users.” Young people are calling on Facebook to evaluate its algorithms that push forward negative content and to abate their potential for harm.
There are arguments for a change in user interaction on the platform. Nina Becket ‘24 believes the issue of Instagram’s toxicity to be “more of a user-by-user problem. I don’t know of much that can be regulated on Facebook’s side to put an end to the social comparison.” Chloe Patricof ‘24 urges individuals to consider how they use the app because “many people put stuff out there that can affect others if they don’t know what’s realistic versus not.”
Simple but substantial adjustments could improve user experience. Gates advocates for a change in mindset. “It’s important to navigate the app through the lens of admiration or joy, as opposed to envy or jealousy,” she said. Many blogs for young people, like TeenVogue, are trying to promote a more positive and healthy relationship with Instagram by encouraging their readers to develop more emotional intelligence. Becket recommended that users “go on Instagram to express yourself, not to compare yourself.” Especially through the recent “casual Instagram” trend, where users post less-romanticized content, young people are trying to improve the norms of the app.
A recent example of paired company and user changes came when Instagram recently rolled out a “hide-likes” feature, where accounts can choose to conceal the number of likes on a given post, in response to claims of elevated social comparison. Theoretically, this feature helps interactions with the app be less focused on the internalized approvals or disapprovals and more on the content itself. Pénélope Flouret ‘23 attests, this change indeed is helpful. “When celebrities, as well as smaller users, turn off their likes, it makes me feel better about myself and more comfortable turning mine off as well,” she said. “Without the likes, Instagram feels more even and less toxic.” However, some users don’t think it improves actual interactions and instead say it is an ingenuine demonstration of Facebook’s compassion and care; others attest that it indeed reduces the pressure to perform well. Some fall in the middle, seeing that both arguments are valid and not mutually exclusive.
While Instagram creates a toxic environment, it also is telling of larger societal issues. As Gates says, “The way Instagram is being used is influenced by larger norms and expectations.” For that reason, this issue should join the broader conversation about youth mental health and regulations on social media companies.
The Wall Street Journal’s “Facebook Files” exposé launched these issues onto a larger, more visible scale. It catalyzed greater governmental awareness and discussions about regulations on what information social media companies can have on their users. Gen-Z wants to be involved in that conversation and that progress, especially as it most directly affects our generation’s future. Yet, many young people think the involvement of older generations can be counterproductive: for the most part, older people who do not directly interact with social media do not understand the nature of its processes, culture, or even the way it affects young people. This creates a difficult dynamic, especially in bodies of government tasked with making decisions that will affect parts of life with which they have limited experience and contact.
Ultimately, it is clear many students at Hewitt believe Facebook owes a responsibility to its users to change its priorities; meanwhile, Instagram users must be conscientious about how they interact with the app. The two solutions are not mutually exclusive. In short, there is no move to “cancel” Instagram despite its proven toxicity, even from a generation quick to do so about virtually anything else.