A few weeks back, an article published by the WSJ revealed compromising information about the tech giant, as told by former employee Frances Haugen. In it, she admitted that the company was fully aware of the effects that its apps had on the youngest users, especifically teenage girls. While the fact that Instagram can be damaging to teenagers’ self esteem comes as no surprise, the truly baffling issue is that most Facebook directives seem to be fully aware of it. In addition, the statement shared by Haugen sheds light on the topic of mental health alteration as a result of social media usage.
When Instagram was launched, back in 2010, most people were curious to use this newly developed app which caused a true revolution in the way we interact and behave online. However, things took a turn for the worse a few years later. What once was an innocent app used by most as a diary to share posts with friends, quickly spiraled into the nightmare it is today. The focus became individualistic and most posts were purely intended to spark envy and jealousy on the other side of the screen. Pictures weren’t just posted for the sake of it, but rather to appeal to the viewer by bragging about something or the other. Slowly but surely, people became obsessed with showcasing a seemingly perfect life, with “perfect” friend groups, vacations and, of course, “perfect” bodies. Or at least, what society considers a perfect body looks like, that is, a body stripped of elements that make it human (think scars, stretch marks, acne, etc.). For an impressionable audience, Instagram has become a landfield of toxic comparisons, full of portrayals of unrealistic standards.
Over the course of the years, Instagram’s once innocent nature became toxic. Its structure, involving likes and comments, was originally designed to promote interaction between users. However, over time, this interaction became nerve-racking as it was used as yet another way of being compared to one another. Teenagers are inherently insecure, as this stage accentuates physical differences between peers. On top of that, Instagram adds another layer of comparison not only based on appearance but also on popularity, measured by the number of likes and comments that someone’s posts get. Although the app tried to get rid of its liking system by implementing a "liked by others" system rather than a numerical one, users are still able to check these statistics. In addition, according to certain surveys, this system only scratches the surface of the real problem.
In a never-ending scroll page, seeing the same body type over and over again only can be truly damaging. Health is marketed as a specific body type with some distinct features. The underlying message being that if your own body doesn’t look that way, perhaps you’re doing something wrong. Some argue that the solution is simple: unfollow anybody who posts triggering content. But the issue is much larger. Unfollowing somebody is arguably easy, but once you’ve been dragged into an insecurity rabbit-hole on social media, almost every post can be damaging in its own way. While some might also say that the ultimate solution is to delete the app, the truth is that there is a paradox when it comes to using Instagram. Although most teens are able to identify it as an important source behind most of their mental health issues, they also feel a necessity to be present and to not disappear from the app, mainly because it serves as a way of interacting with friends ( and FOMO of course).
Considering that Instagram is a picture-based app, it is almost inevitable to think of it as harmful in some way. Even if it were stripped of all of its sources of comparison, it would be triggering for some. In the end, although comments and likes are a big part of the problem, the bigger issue is the never-ending comparison that stems from following hundreds of people whose pictures (often staged) look perfect. Over the last few years, this phenomenon has been accentuated as a result of the exponential growth of content creators or influencers. They make profit off themselves and they are a brand. As such, influencers are a “walking-shop” and their Instagram feed displays pictures whose purposes are business-oriented. As any other business, influencers’ and Instagram’s goal is to make money. However, in an unorthodox business relationship, other users are the potential clients, which means that they are ultimately the ones to decide who to support.
Despite the fact that many claim that “beauty is on the inside and the outside doesn’t matter”, the hard truth is that we are attracted at first glance to what we deem as beautiful, which explains why influencers curate their content so that it looks as nice as possible, even if it means losing perspective and getting far from reality along the way. Would you buy an ugly apple at the grocery store or would you pick the nicest looking one?
In conclusion, Instagram seems fully aware of the damage that its algorithm has on a younger audience, specially teenage girls. What remains unknown is whether they are planning on implementing potential solutions to put an end to this rapidly growing issue.