‘We Make Body Image Issues Worse’: Instagram Knows Just How Toxic It Can Be

Illustrated by Chun Seung.
Content warning: This article discusses suicide in a way that some readers may find distressing.
It's nothing new to proclaim that using Instagram can negatively impact people's mental health. But now we know that Instagram knows this better than most.
The Wall Street Journal's recent multi-part investigation 'The Facebook Files' looked into internal Facebook documents including research reports, online employee discussions and presentation drafts to senior management.
"We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls," read one internal 2019 slide presentation. "Teens who struggle with mental health say Instagram makes it worse," reads another from the same presentation. "The perfect image, feeling attractive, and having enough money are the most likely [concerns] to have started on Instagram," says one other.
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Facebook found that teenagers blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression, with 13% of UK teens who had reported suicidal thoughts pointed to Instagram as the root of their ideation, and 6% of US teens with suicidal thoughts saying the same.
The Wall Street Journal found that Facebook has been conducting research about how its apps affect young users' mental health, but has avoided making its research public or available to experts who have enquired about it. The Wall Street Journal also reported that Facebook has downplayed its effects on mental health publicly, and alleges that Facebook has made "minimal efforts to address these issues," insinuating that keeping young users on Instagram is a lucrative move.
"Instagram is well positioned to resonate and win with young people," read a researcher’s internal slide. Another post read, "There is a path to growth if Instagram can continue their trajectory."

These are often complex problems where there are no easy answers — notwithstanding the wish to reduce them to an attention-grabbing newspaper headline.

Nick Clegg, Instagram's Vice President of Global Affairs
In response, Instagram's Vice President of Global Affairs Nick Clegg released a response that adamantly denied the suggestion that Facebook is not doing enough to address these problems.
"At the heart of this series is an allegation that is just plain false: that Facebook conducts research and then systematically and wilfully ignores it if the findings are inconvenient for the company," he writes.
“What would be really worrisome is if Facebook didn’t do this sort of research in the first place. The reason we do it is to hold up a mirror to ourselves and ask the difficult questions about how people interact at scale with social media. These are often complex problems where there are no easy answers — notwithstanding the wish to reduce them to an attention-grabbing newspaper headline.”
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"Facebook understands the significant responsibility that comes with operating a global platform. We take it seriously, and we don’t shy away from scrutiny and criticism. But we fundamentally reject this mischaracterisation of our work and impugning of the company’s motives."
Refinery29 Australia approached Instagram for comment and was directed to Nick's article above. The Instagram representative pointed to some of Instagram's local Australian partnerships in the realm of mental health and online security, with organisations such as ReachOut, Project Rockit, Plan International Australia, The Butterfly Foundation, and Minus18.
If you or anyone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, please contact Samaritans on 116 123. All calls are free and will be answered in confidence.

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