What Instagram Does to Teens

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S1: You won’t just introduce yourself.

S2: Yeah. My name is Georgia Wells, and I’m a tech reporter for The Wall Street Journal.

S1: If you’ve heard George’s name recently, it’s because her reporting has helped unearth some of Facebook’s secrets. She’s part of a team at the Journal that got a hold of internal company documents the kind of things that executives write to one another about their products and what they do. And in this case, what Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, does to teenagers mental health in the course of your reporting, when you talk to teens, particularly teenage girls. What did their Instagram feeds look like?

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S2: The teen girls I spoke with, some of them showed me their feeds, but they also described them and obviously a huge amount of the content was their friends. But there was also interspersed influencers kind of showcasing often like perfect body, perfect image, perfect life. And then also there was an element of advertising the number of ads for bikinis these teen girls were receiving. It knocked my socks off. It was like friend, friend, influencer, friend, bikini friend, friend, bikini friend, friend, friend, bikini. It was in their face.

S1: One of the girls told Georgia about searching for workout tips in her Explore page. That’s where you can find new content, but also where the app starts to recommend things for you based on what you’ve looked at previously. And after she did that search, what it recommended to her was unsettling.

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S2: Her feed was filled with Eat this, not that. Here’s how to diet more. Here’s how to do you know, eat fewer than X number of calories in a day and. She was quite surprised by kind of how quickly her feed turned into this overall message of your body is not good enough.

S1: How do you make her feel?

S2: Not good. She described feeling worse about her body when she put the app down than when she had started the session on Instagram.

S1: What Georgia found was that Facebook knew all of this. They knew that their app made body image issues worse for girls. The teenager said it was hurting their mental health, but publicly Facebook was saying something very different. Sometimes new reporting on Facebook lands with a thud. A story publishes feel shocking, but then nothing happens. But that is not the case with Georgia and her Wall Street Journal colleagues recent work since their reporting was published. Facebook has been hauled in front of Congress. The company has started to backpedal, releasing documents, putting products on pause and trying to get ahead of congressional anger. Today on the show, what Instagram does to teens, what Facebook knew, and whether people have finally had enough and Lizzie O’Leary. And you’re listening to what next? TBD a show about technology, power and how the future will be determined. Stick around. What makes Georgia and her colleagues recent stories about Facebook so powerful is that during the reporting process, they got their hands on internal company documents and published them.

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S2: The reporting found that for the past three years, Facebook has been conducting studies into how Instagram affects users and repeatedly Instagram researchers found that Instagram is harmful for a sizable percentage of those users. Most notably teen girls.

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S1: There were some numbers in here 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. Yeah, 32 percent is a huge number.

S2: Thirty, yeah. Thirty two percent is a lot. And that was in a 2020 slide presentation. Another finding was quote Comparisons on Instagram can change how young women view and describe themselves. End quote. Here’s another one quote. 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 six percent of American users traced the desire to kill themselves to Instagram. Also, a quote that has really just stuck in my head throughout this reporting is quote we make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls and quote.

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S1: Were people at Facebook surprised by the findings of that study?

S2: No, we spoke with some researchers who Facebook provided for us to speak with. And one of the points they made was that much of this research was actually in line with. Certain segments of the academic kind of conversation, academic research that had been happening and externally from Facebook during this time, so externally from Facebook, we’ve got academics who study this kind of coming up with some of the similar findings. 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.

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S1: How did these researchers kind of go about their work? What did they do? What kinds of questions did they ask?

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S2: It conducted many different types of studies, so they did qualitative studies where they would sit down with teens for two hour kind of interviews and diary studies about kind of what the teens had done. And then in some of the other studies, we see these very large scale surveys, some of as many as 100000 users where Facebook then went back and compared the responses with the logs for what those users had actually viewed and done on Instagram.

S1: 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. I wonder if you could explain to me why buying Instagram and angling itself toward younger people was so important for Facebook.

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S2: So 2012, that’s the year you mentioned that Facebook bought Instagram for a billion dollars, but 2012 is also the year that Facebook started to see the number of teens using Facebook decline. So they buy Instagram in 2012. 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. And the reason young people matter so much to Facebook is that Facebook has saturated the adult market and most of the developed world, like most adults, have downloaded Facebook. And so for their future growth, they’re setting up Instagram as this kind of funnel to bring in these next users.

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S1: When you started talking to teenagers and and particularly teenage girls for your story, were there things that stood out to you or surprised you about how they use the app or what the experience looked like for them?

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S2: Yeah, there’s 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 kind of 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, that 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. And for some of the teens who I spoke with, who did experience these harmful effects, they said they described a very conflicted. Like, I want to be here for some reason. Some aspects. But it’s also causing me pain in other parts of my life. Like, What should I do with this?

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S1: I mean, teenagers have experienced conflicting feelings about their bodies and themselves. Since teenagers began. I wonder how the documents you saw and the people you talked to parse that out. What is, you know, 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.

S2: 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. Right? So spoken with many researchers and doctors about that kind of what’s is there something different here? Like what mechanically are there reasons that this is kind of 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.

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S1: 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.

S2: That’s what happens when a teen or anybody actually looks at their content with this feeling of, you know, how do I stack up next to this person I’m looking at like, am I good enough? Rather than this feeling of like, Oh, I’m here to learn about whoever’s content it is that I’m looking at right now. And Facebook’s own researchers and the documents. Say that negative social comparison is worse on Instagram than the other main popular social media apps for teens these days, and they look at Snapchat and they look at it Tik Tok as comparisons and on Snapchat. The researchers say that the experience for users is often buffered from reality by these kind of silly face filters that tend to be silly rather than beautifying. So it’s like you turn your face

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S1: and I can stick a cat on my face.

S2: Exactly. Yeah, yeah. While on TikTok, there’s a performative element of much of the content on TikTok that also divorces it from reality while 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 like, 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. That’s what the company’s own researchers are saying.

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S1: When we come back. Facebook says it’s pausing a plan to build an Instagram for even younger kids. You’re listening to what makes TBD, I’m Lizzie O’Leary and I’m talking with Georgia Wells from The Wall Street Journal. Georgia’s articles showed that Facebook’s internal researchers found time and again that Instagram could hurt teens mental health. 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. I mean, you’ve got Mark Zuckerberg in front of Congress saying, Man, I don’t know. These things are sort of inconclusive. How were they characterizing this publicly and and did they know it was at odds with their own research?

S2: 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 like 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, 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 and in particular, teen girls.

S1: You talked with Adam Mosseri, who’s the head of Instagram. What did he tell you about how Instagram influences teens?

S2: Adam was really clear that he didn’t consider this dirty laundry, that he was proud that Instagram was asking the tough questions. And so I think that that’s a pretty fair point that a lot of companies or I could imagine other companies that might not try to study some of the kind of uncomfortable aspects of the effects that their apps could have or that their products could have.

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S1: 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 but we don’t know if they’re studying it.

S2: Right, exactly. And so I think this brings up some interesting questions, like should companies have an obligation to study the effects that their products have on users, on all users? And then if companies reveal kind of unfortunate truths about their products, do they have an obligation to disclose that?

S3: Atmosphere is the head of Instagram, and he’s with us exclusively this Monday morning, good to see you. Thanks for having

S1: me. So before this week, Adam Mosseri put out an Instagram post and he went on the Today show as well and said they are kind of putting up a companywide pause on building this Instagram for kids under 13 what people have called Instagram for kids speaking.

S2: But today we want to talk about how we’re going to put the work on pause.

S1: What do you think is going on there?

S2: So a number of lawmakers have been asking Facebook to pause on this effort for a while now. And as a part of this investigative series, we’ve been digging into Facebook’s plans to attract pre-teens like younger than the 13 years old that’s currently allowed on their platform to their products. And we had approached Facebook about this story. And days later, Adam Mosseri appeared in a, you know, on the news shows kind of discussing their plans to pass

S1: in these documents that you wrote about in relation to younger kids, there is a sentence in a presentation. You got a hold of that. Like, I can’t tell if it makes you want to laugh or cry or what. I just want to read it. Is there a way to leverage playdates to drive word of hand slash growth among kids?

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S2: It’s a what? That’s a head scratcher. So this comes from a document that was looking at how children socialize and. It’s asking this question or the question that appears to be motivating this document is a is there a way for Facebook? I kind of insert itself into either playdates, like as children or socializing, or also the process where children are coordinating the logistics of a playdate and looping in their parents. And that Facebook is looking at whether there’s a way to include its products in this whole process. And as a part of this, Facebook researchers surveyed parents about how they would feel about is there a role for children to have their screens out? And a Facebook app opened during this play date and resoundingly the answer from parents in the documents was playdates or at a time when screens are not supposed to be out. The whole point of a playdate is face to face interaction.

S1: You know, there’s this tension here and 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 publish these. But they also, when confronted with these issues, sort of throw up their hands and say, like, whoops, well, we didn’t mean for those bad things to happen or what we do, these little fixes around, around the margins. How do you square that? Like, does that wash for you?

S2: 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.

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S1: George Wallace, thank you very much.

S2: Thank you so much, Lizzie. This was fun.

S1: Georgia Wells reports on technology for The Wall Street Journal. If you are a teenager, the parent of one and you want to tell us how Instagram makes you feel. Leave us a voicemail. We’re at 202 eight eight eight two five eight eight. Also want to note that if you or someone you know is dealing with some of the challenges discussed in this episode, the National Eating Disorders Association has a helpline at one 800 nine three one two two three seven. And if you’re considering self-harm, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at one 800 273 Talk. That’s one 800 273 8255. All right, that is it for us today. TBD is produced by Ethan Brooks. Were edited by Tori Boche and Alison Benedict. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer for Slate Podcasts, and TBD is part of the larger What Next family? We’re also part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University and New America. And I want to recommend that you listen to Thursday’s episode of What Next? It’s about vaccine holdouts in the NBA, and there’s a great one. What next will be back next week? I’m Lizzie O’Leary. Thanks for listening.