Instagram Triggers Teenage Mental Health Problems
Key points to remember
- Facebook’s own researchers know Instagram has mental health consequences, especially for teenage girls, but hasn’t clearly addressed it in public.
- Clinicians see the consequences play out for their clients, particularly through social comparison, eating disorders and depression.
- Some changes, such as limiting certain features, consulting with mental health practitioners, and implementing ongoing mental health initiatives, may alleviate some of the issues.
A recent survey of The Wall Street Journal found that for the past three years, Facebook has been conducting studies on how Instagram affects its millions of young users. According to its own research, the media giant found that the app was harmful to a significant percentage of them, especially teenage girls.
Since before buying Instagram in 2012, Facebook was involved in controversial. But perhaps most important of all has been its impact on the mental health of users. According to Instagram’s own researchers, about a third of all teenage girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.
The researchers shared their findings in March 2020 with senior Facebook executives, including CEO Mark Zuckerberg. In their presentation of the data, they noted that some features of the app, including the encouragement to share only the “best” moments, the pressure to look “perfect” and an addictive interface riddled with likes and dislikes. flashy content, can ‘exasperate each other. to create a perfect storm. “ The storm, they added, can lead users, especially when they are younger and more impressionable, towards unhealthy sense of self, eating disorders and depression.
A year later, to a March 2021 Congressional hearing, Zuckerberg did not directly address these findings. Instead, when asked about children and mental health, he said that “using social apps to connect with other people can have positive mental health benefits.”
For regular users of the photo and video sharing app, the damage to mental health may not come as a surprise. The most shocking aspect of it all, Jaynay C. Johnson, LMFT, a Philadelphia-based adolescent therapist and founder of Teens talking, says Verywell, is that Facebook did not take responsibility.
In order to help people heal and reduce risk, she said, the transparency of media giants is the first step.
Verywell spoke to Johnson to find out more about the impact of social media on her customers, as well as how she helps teens manage their use.
Verywell: What social media-induced mental health issues do you see among your clients, especially teenage girls?
Johnson: One of the main things is about beauty, body image, body type, and lifestyle. We see a lot of girls who have eating disorder issues because they see people online and compare themselves. This idea of comparison is very real on Instagram. Even TikTok has its own belly.
Usually it is a very heavy feeling of depression. Feelings of “I’m never good enough. I don’t look good enough.” Many teens lose the essence of the ability to communicate and manage conflict in person. Everything happens online, which creates its own disaster. Now anyone who wasn’t before is participating and they can comment.
Verywell: How do you tailor the treatment to address issues related to social media and Instagram in particular?
Johnson: I’m an inclusive type of therapist, which means I’m not just going to say we’re taking down social media. Social media is here to stay, so I’m more or less trying to help teens understand how they’re triggered online. Then I help them solve some of those root causes. Sometimes it’s related to family or comes from feeling that they can’t make friends in real life. Other times they have good friends, but then they’re bombarded with all the other stuff.
I kind of do a split treatment where I practically work on how to maintain a better social media presence. It sounds like, “Okay, let’s check your page. Who are you really following? What kind of content do you want to see?” For example, if you love dogs, let’s follow more pages on dogs. I help them actively organize their page with more content they enjoy, more content that makes them smile, and content that doesn’t make them feel like they compare themselves.
I also talk to them about only following people they know and teach them how to determine when it’s time to stop following or block someone. So when they are on Instagram, they are confident in their own ability to manage their page. But, of course, it takes a lot of time and work, as what they experience outside of Instagram could also lead to behaviors they have on Instagram.
Just banning social media doesn’t teach teens anything. I really want them to have this education so that they can be emotionally responsible for themselves in this world. They can now get information from anywhere and anytime, so they have to filter their choices within themselves. We live in a world with many more risk factors, so it is relevant that the teenager understands how to make a good decision, as well as what its pitfalls could be and how to deal with them. For me, it’s just about making sure they have the right information to make the best choices.
Jaynay C. Johnson, LMFT
Just banning social media doesn’t teach teens anything.
– Jaynay C. Johnson, LMFT
Verywell: You mentioned the dangers of comparison, and of only following people you know. Tell us a little more about this.
Johnson: When you are in an environment with people you know personally and your goal is to reach a level that they have reached, then you can actually build a healthy relationship with them around those kinds of goals. You may also have similarities to this person – they are part of your ecosystem in one way or another, be it school, your neighborhood, your church. So you can also connect in a more authentic way. And more likely than not, you will also feel that what they have might be achievable for you as well.
Unlike uploading, you might not have anything in common with the influencer. Yet you compare yourself and now you are fighting for something that may not be within your reach, culturally or financially. It does more harm than good, especially for teenage brains, which are trying to really think through who they are. Their identity could be more cemented and cultivated in an environment around people with similar qualities or being part of their ecosystem.
Verywell: How do you interact with parents and what advice do you give them?
Johnson: In my interaction with parents in my private practice, I always check how their child is doing at home. I try to check in at least once a week or every two weeks to see how the teen is doing and if they’ve noticed any changes in their behavior, especially around social media.
I also talk to parents about how they monitor usage, as well as how present and active they are with their teenager around. I find that parents struggle with their teenager who needs more supervision because in our world we have decided that a teenager is a mini-adult. And they are not, even if they look like they are. They are still children and they still need guidance.
I talk to parents about how they are going to fill the void. Because parents will say, “I can see the phone or social media is a problem, so I just pick up the phone. But they don’t cultivate their child’s creativity or social skills in any other way. This often leads a child to feel lonely and depressed. If they are already struggling with this, it could lead to self-harm, suicide attempt, and hospitalization.
I’m not being dramatic when I say picking up the phone is everything, especially if it’s an only child. If you pick up their phone, but nothing changes in the family dynamic, then those feelings start to set in. The teenager worries about what people say about him. They worry about what they’re missing because they can’t go to school tomorrow and join in the conversation if something big happens on social media. These times are good opportunities for parents to help the child make the transition to less use of social media. They might say, “Hey, let’s go have a movie night” or “Let’s go to a bookstore or take a walk.”
Alright: Facebook’s response to all of this could be something like “it’s not our fault these kids were already vulnerable to developing something like this.” How would you react if you could speak directly to these media companies?
Johnson: I feel a little pessimistic here because companies know what they are doing. They know teens are impressionable and they use it.
But if I were to look at this and try to be optimistic, I would love to see social media platforms have more forward looking health and wellness initiatives. I think what often happens is that they have these initiatives, but they are on the back burner. They only work for a week or a month of mental health awareness, but they are not constant. There should be more health and wellness initiatives that are part of the platform, even if they just encourage people to take a break.
Putting the blame on the parent and the teenager is unfair because companies know what they are doing. Facebook should be honest about its findings as it will validate the millions of people who already know Instagram is a problem. By validating someone, we can now talk about options, treatment or how to pivot.
It doesn’t mean that we have to remove the whole platform, but may mean that we have to adjust and change some things. I would love to see them create a distinct type of Instagram for young users. Teenage news feeds should contain chronological posts with only people they know. They also don’t need to crawl any pages or all of the ads.
Therapists outnumber people in need of support because there are all these programs and systems being created, all these policies that are causing harm. So, as a family therapist, I try to think about this on a larger level. How can we deal with this and help people be healthier so that not everyone feels the need for a therapist?