The Industry

The Most Damning Thing We’ve Learned About Instagram Yet

Facebook tried to clean up its latest scandal by releasing internal documents. Then reporters released more of them.

In this photo illustration, a person looks at a smart phone with a Instagram logo displayed on the screen
A trove of internal documents reveals more details about Instagram’s impacts on teens. Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

Facebook is currently dealing with what might be its biggest scandal in years, and on Wednesday the company attempted to contain some of the fallout. It did not go well.

In a blog post, Facebook released two slide decks that had informed the Wall Street Journal’s bombshell report from mid-September indicating that the company knew from internal research conducted in 2019 that its subsidiary platform Instagram was harming the mental health of teen girls, particularly when it comes to body image. Perhaps the most startling revelation in the piece, gleaned from a slide in a leaked internal presentation, was that the company’s research found that Instagram was exacerbating body image issues in teen girls, and that younger users were blaming the platform for increased anxiety and depression. There’s little evidence that Facebook acted on the findings.

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The Journal’s report was part of a series it’s calling “The Facebook Files,” which is based on internal documents that a former employee provided to reporters. (The whistleblower will be appearing on 60 Minutes this weekend.) The documents also revealed that certain elite Facebook users are exempt from some or all of its rules, that its response to human traffickers who abuse the site is weak, and that attempts to foster connections between friends and family on the platform were actually elevating divisive content, the very thing Facebook promised to tamp down after the 2016 election. However, the revelations about Instagram’s impacts on younger users’ mental health have received the most attention and spurred two congressional hearings on Thursday, which is why Facebook released the internal slide decks on the issue.

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The company heavily annotated the slide decks to highlight the positive impacts of its platforms on mental health and to interpret the deleterious effects more leniently. For instance, one of the slides about Instagram very bluntly states, “We make body issues worse for 1 in 3 teen girls.” In its annotations, Facebook attempts to soften the impact of this statement by claiming that this statistic only refers to survey respondents, not Instagram users as a whole, and that the language used (in its own internal documents!) is “sensationalizing” and ignores positive interpretations. “Also, as this study is focused on the perceptions of survey takers, it is not designed to measure the causal relationship between Instagram and hard life moments,” the annotations read. “In this context, the causal language in the title is myopic.” The blog post goes further to accuse the Journal of mischaracterizing the findings, and that the effects of Instagram were positive overall for the teen survey respondents.

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In response to Facebook’s accusations, the Journal also released a trove of documents later on Wednesday night that it had received from the whistleblower on the mental health issue, including four more slide decks that the company had not released on its own. These documents contain even more concerning tidbits, including statistics indicating that 66 percent of teen girls and 40 percent of teen boys on Instagram experience “negative social comparison,” that 52 percent of teen girls experiencing this negative social comparison say it was the result of images related to beauty, and that Instagram made pre-existing body image issues even worse in 32 percent of teen girls. Overall, one in five teens say that Instagram makes them feel worse about themselves, based on an internet survey with 2,503 respondents. The research further found that Instagram had the highest impact on body and appearance comparisons relative to apps like TikTok, Snapchat, and VSCO.

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The slides that the Journal released also offer an illuminating look at the dynamics that drive body-image problems among Instagram users. The research identified diet tea ads, size 0 models, and use of the hashtag #NoFilter on a picture that actually does have a filter as some of the types of content that can trigger appearance envy. The types of accounts that fuel the most social comparison, according to the research, are what Instagram terms “middle rung friends”—acquaintances on the platform that occupy the space between best friends and loose connections like classmates. Middle-rung friends are close enough to a user to trigger comparisons, but a little too removed for that user to know about their backstories and other details of their lives. Content from friends is also more impactful in terms of social comparison than is content from celebrities, presumably because they’re also too far removed, though the cumulative effect of a bunch of posts from famous people can also negatively affect the average user. The slide decks further detail how teens spiral on Instagram, comparing the experience of falling down one of these unhealthy rabbit holes to the stages of grief. Except in this case, according to the research, the stages are bargaining, insecurity, self-described dysmorphia, anger, paralysis, and withdrawal. “Social comparison is worse on Instagram. It is perceived as real life, but based on celebrity standards,” one slide reads. “Explore and profile stalking enables never-ending rabbit holes.”

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The researchers did make some recommendations on how to make Instagram a healthier place, such as promoting body-inclusive influencers and instituting “personalized time-out mindfulness breaks that break the spiral.” Again, it’s unclear whether Facebook actually acted on any of them, and Instagram head Adam Mosseri has in the past said that he doesn’t think there are straightforward solutions for reducing the harm that Instagram causes. After the Journal published its exposé, however, Mosseri told NBC that Instagram will roll out a “take a break” feature.

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