The least surprising news ever broke last week. After years of Facebook brushing off the harmful impacts of Instagram, which it acquired in 2012, a leaked internal report revealed what we all already knew: that the social-media giant has known for years about Instagram’s negative effects on the mental health of teens. It’s a side effect so obvious that it feels almost comical to need research to prove it.
Social media has given every person, even those who weren’t predisposed to it to begin with, the opportunity to spend their entire lives coping with anxiety and depression. Everyone is suffering, and everyone knew what the root of our mental-health crisis was long before Facebook acknowledged it. The question now is: What, if anything, will they do about it?
“Instagram for kids?” No, that is not a joke. Actual kids could come up with better ways to make the platform safer than Mark Zuckerberg’s idea, an under-13 app he has already announced plans for.
According to The Wall Street Journal, Instagram makes 32 percent of teenage girls feel worse about their bodies than they already do. Facebook’s research found that this was because the “comparisons on Instagram can change how young women view and describe themselves.”
It’s a similar phenomenon to how porn gives young boys an unrealistic idea of sex, one that will undoubtedly leave them feeling unfulfilled in relationships. Thanks to Instagram, young girls now have an unrealistic idea of what a face and body are supposed to look like—with repercussions going far beyond unfulfillment. (Check the Instagram @celebface for one example.)
Instagram’s head of public policy, Karina Newton, defended the company by saying, “Issues like negative social comparison and anxiety exist in the world, so they’re going to exist on social media too.” Something I’d like to point out to Karina is that our brains are not mentally equipped to tackle the accessibility of social media.
Actual kids could come up with better ways to make the platform safer than Mark Zuckerberg’s “Instagram for kids” idea.
Social comparison in life before Instagram consisted of envying the looks of the town beauty, who would turn heads at football games. That is the negative social comparison that’s meant to exist in the world.
Even the rise of the supermodel in the 80s and 90s was more manageable for self-image. Holding yourself up to an “industry standard” is a cakewalk compared to seeing a photo of a stranger who looks exactly like you but is one size smaller and has a more perfect nose and better hair, butt, clothes, and—especially—life.
Because of social media, we are now exposed to thousands of town beauties every day. Often from the moment we wake up until we go to sleep.
If you’ve gone on social media at any point in the last few years, you’ve surely seen someone talking about how important it is to talk about mental health. How we need to normalize feeling this way—when, in fact, these feelings should be anything but normal.
“Talking about it” is bringing a knife to a gunfight. Reading infographics on ways we can better take care of our mental health on the very vehicle that’s affecting our mental health is like writing “always be gentle with yourself” on the palm you use to slap yourself across the face.
No matter how much time and money we pour into therapy and wellness products, or how often we write in our gratitude journals, it will not protect our teens against the damage Instagram causes.
It’s a similar phenomenon to how porn gives young boys an unrealistic idea of sex.
Corporations will always put profit before the well-being of consumers. So why do we keep expecting them to have anything but our worst interests at heart? It’s the only thing they know how to do.
We have to do more than just talk about it; we have to refuse to tolerate Facebook’s lies and ask our lawmakers to hold the company accountable.
If Facebook wanted to make Instagram safer for kids, they wouldn’t create a new app that encourages children to begin their addiction and mental decline before the age of 13. They would make the current one better and stop pretending that they can’t. If Facebook is able to whitelist millions of users it considers V.I.P.’s from its own content-moderation practices—another bit of news that leaked last week—it can make Instagram better.
If they cared, they might seek the advice of young girls, who intimately know and understand Instagram’s most toxic aspects. They might get rid of the algorithm, a formula that mathematically keeps users on their phone until they’re basically incoherent.
And maybe get rid of the Explore page, too, which feeds an infinite number of photos of other people users never sought out to begin with.
It would be a step in the right direction if they required people to write “#FaceTuned” on Photoshopped photos, like how influencers are obliged to write “#ad” when they’re being paid to post. Or how about a warning label for when users first open the app, like they implemented on cigarette packs?
They could also—I don’t know—ban children under 18 entirely, so there aren’t young people being driven to suicide due to a photo-sharing app. It’s like we’re living in some kind of sci-fi horror film, except it’s real.
While they’re at it, they might as well take read receipts off direct messaging so we don’t have to deal with the anxiety of not being able to ignore someone’s message without their knowing it’s been read or feel like they’re mad at you because they ignored your message. But they can do that after all the more important stuff.
All in all, the most deceptive part about Zuckerberg’s “Instagram for kids” plan is that he already has a proven method that could fix all of the current problems right in his back pocket: doing whatever it was he did to Facebook that made it so uncool every person under 30 deleted their account.
Teens have already inherited a dying planet—the least we can do is protect their minds.
Cazzie David is a columnist for AIR MAIL and the author of No One Asked for This