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Harmful effects of Instagram shocking but not a surprise

By Tom Jarvis, Founder and managing director



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September 16, 2021 | 3 min read

The Wall Street Journal has published documents obtained this week from an internal study at Facebook that found Instagram had harmful effects among a significant portion of young female users.

Wilderness on the harmful effects of Instagram among young female users as relayed by Facebook.

Wilderness on the harmful effects of Instagram among young female users as relayed by Facebook

For many, this is something they have known for a long time, though Facebook has publicly tried to downplay the negative impacts on young users’ mental health. The WSJ investigation this week found that Facebook had been running in-depth studies on the impact of Instagram for more than three years, with researchers suggesting that Instagram makes “body image issues worse for one in three teenage girls”.

“32% of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.”

These are pretty frightening findings and are only added to by the fact that “teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression”, with researchers suggesting that this reaction was consistent across a range of age groups and was provided unprompted.

Facebook, it seems, has known for some time that Instagram can have a negative impact on the mental health and wellbeing of its young userbase – particularly for young women on the platform – yet seem to have done little to change this.

A perfect storm

What makes Instagram different from other social media platforms is the focus on perfection and the feeling from users that they need to create a highly polished and curated version of their lives. Researchers found that this focus on looking good and having an aspirational lifestyle, even if both are somewhat created, means that “social comparison is worse on Instagram”.

Not only that, but the research suggested that Instagram’s Explore page can push young users into viewing harmful content. “Aspects of Instagram exacerbate each other to create a perfect storm,” the research found.

Facebook hasn’t denied The WSJ article, with Instagram chief executive Adam Mosseri saying he is “proud” of the work being done and that he has been working hard for the team at Instagram to “embrace our responsibilities more broadly”.

This, however, is in contrast to reports that Facebook is working on a version of Instagram specifically aimed at kids under the age of 13, despite wide outcry and concerns from advocacy groups.

It seems hard to fathom that Facebook could possibly continue with a venture aimed directly at kids, despite these reports of its own internal research showing the ill effects Instagram can have. But then nothing should surprise us anymore when it comes to Facebook.

Tom Jarvis, founder and chief executive at Wilderness.

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