For the past three years, the Wall Street Journal recently reported, Facebook has been conducting its own research into how Instagram, which the company bought in 2012, affects users. Its findings repeatedly show that Instagram is harmful to a sizable percentage of its users, with teenage girls being particularly negatively impacted by the app. A line in the company’s own reports reads: “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls.”
In the wake of that research’s publication as part of the Wall Street Journal’s recent series the Facebook Files, an executive from the social network was hauled in front of Congress.
The company has also started to backpedal, releasing documents, putting Instagram Kids on pause, and trying to get ahead of congressional anger. But while the findings are clear—Instagram negatively affects teens’ (especially teen girls’) mental health—Facebook’s public response to the reporting has been less firm, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself calling the research “inconclusive.”
On Friday’s episode of What Next: TBD, I spoke with Georgia Wells, a tech reporter for the Wall Street Journal who co-wrote the story, about what Instagram does to teens, what Facebook knew, and whether people have finally had enough.
Lizzie O’Leary: There were some numbers in your reporting that kind of blew my mind. Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.
Georgia Wells: Thirty-two percent is a lot. Another finding was: “Comparisons on Instagram can change how young women view and describe themselves.” Here’s another one: “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression. This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.” Another finding was: “Among teens who reported suicidal thoughts, 13 percent of British users and 6 percent of American users traced the desire to kill themselves to Instagram.”
A quote that has really just stuck in my head throughout this reporting is, “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls.”
Were people at Facebook surprised by the findings of that study?
No. We spoke with some researchers who Facebook provided for us. One of the points they made was that much of this research was actually in line with certain segments of academic research that had been happening externally from Facebook during this time. But what’s notable here is that Facebook has better data than any of these people who want to look at this issue. Like Facebook’s got the logs of what these users actually looked at.
How did these researchers go about their work? What did they do? What kinds of questions did they ask?
They conducted many different types of studies. So they did qualitative studies where they would sit down with teens for two-hour interviews and diary studies about what the teens had done. And then in some of the other studies, we see these very large-scale surveys, some of them as many as 100,000 users, where Facebook then went back and compared the responses with the logs for what those users had actually viewed and done on Instagram.
I think it’s important to back up and explain why we’re talking about young people on Instagram in the first place. Facebook bought Instagram in 2012. One of the things that they were after in that acquisition was youth. Why was buying Instagram and angling itself toward younger people so important for Facebook?
2012 is also the year that Facebook started to see the number of teens using Facebook decline. So they buy Instagram. This brings Facebook huge support among teenagers. And so Instagram becomes a part of this growth strategy to remain kind of relevant in the lives of young people. Young people matter so much to Facebook because Facebook has saturated the adult market in most of the developed world. Most adults have downloaded Facebook. And so for their future growth, they’re setting up Instagram as this funnel to bring in these next users.
When you started talking to teenagers and particularly teenage girls for your story, were there things that stood out to you or surprised you about how they used the app or what the experience looked like for them?
Yeah. There was this incredibly conflicted feeling many of the teens described to me because many of them seemed to perceive that the app was making them feel worse about themselves, yet they lacked the self-control in the moment to put it down and to spend less time on it. And this is reflected in Facebook’s own research, too: Teenagers described almost an addict’s journey with Instagram. That they knew it wasn’t making them feel good, but they kept on going to it. And many of the teens said that they also appreciated and liked aspects of the app. Like they liked knowing what their friends were up to and they liked being in the loop.
I mean, teenagers have experienced conflicting feelings about their bodies and themselves since teenagers began. How do the documents you saw and the people you talked to parse that out? What is struggling with body image or depression or even thoughts of self-harm versus those things taken to a different place because you’re looking at Instagram?
I was a child of the ’90s, and that was when many people were talking about how fashion magazines and Photoshopping could be really harmful, especially to teen girls. I’ve spoken with many researchers and doctors about that. Is there something different here? Mechanically, are there reasons that this has more of a superlative effect that we should be paying attention to? And many of the researchers pointed to the addictive product mechanics on Instagram and also the targeted content and advertising as an aspect that set Instagram apart from say fashion magazines.
Fashion magazines come to an end. At a certain point, you’re out of pages. But on Instagram, you could essentially scroll forever. Especially once the app suggests more and more algorithmically-tailored content. Clean eating recipes, fitness inspo, weight loss. And there’s something else that makes Instagram different. The researchers at Facebook singled it out in their study. It’s called negative social comparison. What is that?
That’s what happens when someone looks at their content with this feeling of “How do I stack up next to this person I’m looking at? Am I good enough?” Rather than this feeling of “Oh, I’m here to learn about whoever’s content it is that I’m looking at right now.” And Facebook’s own researchers in the documents say that negative social comparison is worse on Instagram than the other main popular social media apps for teens these days. They look at Snapchat and TikTok as comparisons. And on Snapchat, the researchers say that the experience for users is often buffered from reality by these face filters that tend to be silly rather than beautifying. While on TikTok, there’s a performative element of much of the content and on TikTok that also divorces it from reality. But on Instagram, there’s this feeling of it’s a highlight reel of your life and this is real.
That was a really interesting moment in the documents because in the past, when we’ve talked to executives at Facebook about some of the mental health issues, they’ve often framed them more as, “Well, this is a media issue” or “This is a social media issue.” But here in the documents, it’s saying negative social comparison is worse on Instagram.
One of the things that stood out to me is that while the company is doing this research and while the kids you have talked to are having these experiences, the public stance from Facebook is very different. How are they characterizing this publicly? And did they know it was at odds with their own research?
It’s hard for me to answer who knew what. But this research that we’ve been looking at, these documents about Instagram and mental health, this is one of the clearest gaps that we’ve seen in the documents between how Facebook is talking about itself internally and how Facebook is presenting these issues externally. But I’ve never seen a statement from Facebook, from one of the company’s executives, that came anywhere close to acknowledging that level of concern about the effect that Instagram could have on the mental health of teens, in particular teen girls.
You talked with Adam Mosseri, who’s the head of Instagram. What did he tell you about how Instagram influences teens?
Adam was really clear that he didn’t consider this dirty laundry. That he was proud that Instagram was asking the tough questions.
Right. I mean, I guess I could be asking you some questions about TikTok, which also serves up beauty content, weight loss content, algorithmically generated. But we don’t know if they’re studying it.
Right, exactly. I think this brings up some interesting questions. Should companies have an obligation to study the effects that their products have on users? And then, if companies reveal unfortunate truths about their products, do they have an obligation to disclose that?
This week, Adam Mosseri put out an Instagram post and he went on the Today Show as well, and to they’re putting up a companywide pause on building this Instagram for kids under 13. What do you think is going on there?
So a number of lawmakers have been asking Facebook to pause this effort for a while now. And as a part of this investigative series, we’ve been digging into Facebook’s plans to attract preteens, younger than the 13-years-old that’s currently allowed on their platform. We had approached Facebook about this story and days later, Adam Mosseri appeared on the news shows discussing their plans to pause.
In these documents that you wrote about in relation to younger kids, there is a sentence in a presentation you got ahold of that I can’t tell if it makes me want to laugh or cry or what. It reads: “Is there a way to leverage play dates to drive word of hand/growth among kids?” What?
It’s a head scratcher. So this comes from a document that was looking at how children socialize. The question that appears to be motivating this document is, is there a way for Facebook to insert itself into either play dates, as children are socializing, or the process where children are coordinating the logistics of a play date and looping in their parents? As a part of this, Facebook researchers surveyed parents about if there was a role for children to have their screens out and a Facebook app open during this play date. And resoundingly, the answer from parents in the documents was play dates are a time when screens are not supposed to be out. The whole point of a play date is face-to-face interaction.
There’s this tension here in all of this. You have a company, Facebook, which puts so much time and money into these products, but also into doing this really fine-grained research. And they haven’t really made that research public until you published these. But they also, when confronted with these issues, sort of threw up their hands and said, Whoops, well we didn’t mean for those bad things to happen or well we do these little fixes around the margins. How do you square that? Does that wash for you?
In the past, we’ve seen incident after incident of different things that went wrong on Facebook and the company appearing to treat it as a PR issue rather than as a product issue. And in this case, what’s new here though, is for Facebook to come out and say they’re actually going to pause with Instagram Kids. Maybe this is a sign that something different is happening.
On Sunday, Frances Haugen, the whistleblower who provided the documents behind the Facebook Files appeared on 60 Minutes to talk about why she did it. Read more.