Facebook Knew Instagram Was Harmful to Mental Health of Teen Girls, Said Nothing

white teen girl looks at her phone

The Good Brigade / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • A new report claims that Instagram is harmful to teenage girls.
  • It’s based on leaked internal Facebook studies looking at the impact of Instagram on its youngest users.
  • Facebook has been criticized for knowing about these findings, but doing nothing about them.
  • While social media apps need to do more to protect their youngest users from psychological harm, experts say education about the risks of social media begins at home.

As one of the biggest social networks in the world, Instagram—owned by Facebook—is popular with young people. In fall 2020, the photo-sharing app ranked as the third most popular social network among teenagers in the United States. 

But a new report from the Wall Street Journal claims that the photo-sharing app is harmful to a significant percentage of teenagers. To make matters worse, Facebook reportedly knew about these effects but did nothing about it.

What Has Facebook Done?

According to the Journal, internal Facebook studies over the past three years that examined the impact of Instagram on its youngest users found that teenage girls suffered the most psychological harm

One internal Facebook presentation stated that among teens who reported suicidal thoughts, 13% of British users and 6% of American users believed Instagram was to blame. Facebook also found that 14% of boys in the U.S. said Instagram made them feel worse about themselves, reported the Journal. Researchers highlighted Instagram’s Explore page, which provides users with curated posts from a wide range of accounts, as one of the most harmful components.

Sheila Forman, PhD

Depression, eating disorders, and self-inflicted harm are just a few of the psychological consequences of continued exposure to harmful social media content.

— Sheila Forman, PhD

In a blog post, Instagram’s head of public policy, Karina Newton, responded to the Journal report. 

“We’re exploring ways to prompt [users] to look at different topics if they’re repeatedly looking at this type of content,” Newton wrote. “We’re cautiously optimistic that these nudges will help point people towards content that inspires and uplifts them, and to a larger extent, will shift the part of Instagram’s culture that focuses on how people look.” 

“Business Will Be Business”

Unsurprisingly, many mental health professionals are concerned that Facebook reportedly had this information and didn’t do anything about it. 

“There is an outdated expression that says ‘boys will be boys’,” says Sheila Forman, PhD, former lawyer turned psychologist and mindful eating instructor. “What is not outdated is the notion that ‘business will be business.’”

This may explain why Facebook did nothing to protect young girls from the mental anguish that Instagram may cause, Forman adds. As a clinical psychologist, she knows first-hand the long-term damage that can result from poor self-image and feelings of inferiority.

“Depression, eating disorders, and self-inflicted harm are just a few of the psychological consequences of continued exposure to harmful social media content,” she says. “These consequences should be of concern for all.” 

Linda Charmaraman, PhD

Although we want to protect every teen from the harmful effects of social media, we are most likely talking about a minority of teens who will have primarily negative impacts.

— Linda Charmaraman, PhD

Linda Charmaraman, PhD, a senior research scientist who studies the link between social media use and teens’ well-being at the Wellesley Centers for Women, isn’t surprised that any social media platform would find out that their business model of attracting as many users as possible and figuring out how to keep them on it more frequently may not be the best for users’—and particularly teens’—mental health.

However, Charmaraman points out that cross-sectional data provides only limited views of the relationship between users and the media they consume. “You cannot know the mental health status of the user before and after using the media/device/app unless you have data at different time points,” she explains.

For instance, since Facebook does not have data on these users until they become users and are in the “system,” they can only speculate about whether users came to the platform with pre-existing tendencies for mental health struggles that might be exacerbated by its use or not.

Finding a Solution

On September 14, TikTok announced that it was rolling out new resources to support the well-being of its users. “We’re proud that our platform has become a place where people can share their personal experiences with mental well-being, find community and support each other, and we take very seriously our responsibility to keep TikTok a safe space for these important conversations,” said Tara Wadhwa, TikTok’s U.S. director of policy.

According to the announcement, these resources include in-app guides addressing topics such as “signs of struggling,” “steps to create a connection,” and advice about eating and body image.

“These efforts are steps in the right direction and hopefully the beginning of a trend in how social media outlets protect their users from further harm,” says Forman.

What This Means For You

Regardless of what social media outlets do to protect young people from potentially harmful posts, education about these risks must begin at home. Start with an open and honest conversation about the role of social media in your child’s life, emphasizing the importance of a healthy relationship with themselves.

Setting limits on the amount of time and the type of content your teen engages with online may be effective. Additionally, you can be involved in helping your teen decide what type of content they post on their own social media pages. By explaining that people have a tendency to post content that makes them appear desirable, popular, and successful, your teen will understand that it only represents one side of a person’s life.

TikTok’s efforts may be steps in the right direction, but a lot more needs to be done, Charmaraman says. “One way a company can think more deeply about the ethical implications of potential harm to minors is to actually include teens in the design of these platforms and features that may help or hinder healthy use,” she notes. “Adults test-driving products on other adults will not help solve the mystery of how to develop features that won’t be distressing to teens.”

Remember, social media’s not all bad. A Pew Research Center 2018 report that found the vast majority of teens feel that social media makes them feel more connected to their peers (81%) whereas 26% feel that social media makes them feel worse about themselves. 

“Although we want to protect every teen from the harmful effects of social media, we are most likely talking about a minority of teens who will have primarily negative impacts,” Charmaraman says. 

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Statista. Favorite social networks of U.S. teens 2012-2020.

  2. Tara Wadhwa. New resources to support our community's well-being. TikTok.

  3. Pew Research Center. Teens and their experiences on social media.

By Claire Gillespie
Claire Gillespie is a freelance writer specializing in mental health. She’s written for The Washington Post, Vice, Health, Women’s Health, SELF, The Huffington Post, and many more.