A former Facebook product manager’s claims about the company’s impact on American society has inflamed members of Congress and everyone else who holds a grudge against Big Tech. Particularly alarming is the allegation that Instagram, which Facebook owns, is wrecking the psyches of teenage girls. But there is less here than meets the eye.
In her Senate testimony last Tuesday, Frances Haugen accused the company of imitating tobacco companies by addicting youngsters to a toxic product. “It’s just like cigarettes,” she said. “They say explicitly, ‘I feel bad when I use Instagram, and yet I can’t stop.’” She proposed putting social media off-limits to anyone under 17.
Her argument drew on Facebook’s research, which had come to light in a Wall Street Journal series. But the demonization of Instagram brings to mind previous alarms about media that engage teenagers.
Back in the 1950s, congressional hearings focused on how comic books featuring tales of crime and horror allegedly caused juvenile delinquency. The episode, which forced the industry into self-censorship, now seems like a case study in groundless overreaction.
It was not the last. In 1970, Vice President Spiro Agnew assailed rock music for “brainwashing” young people into drug use. In the 1980s, Congress held hearings that focused on heavy metal bands that supposedly promoted murder and devil worship. When Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., declared that Facebook is “promoting toxic content and preying on children,” he was echoing now-forgotten scares.
In this case, Facebook provided the evidence that exposes its purported villainy. One finding by its researchers got special attention. “Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse,” said an internal document. “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression.”
But these statements misrepresent the data. It was not 32% of teen girls who said Instagram made them feel bad about their bodies; it was 32% of teen girls who already felt bad about their bodies. Even in this group, 45% said the social media platform had no effect on how they felt about their bodies — and 22% said it made them feel better.
On almost every mental health issue, from anxiety to eating disorders, the survey indicated that Instagram’s positive effects exceeded the negative ones. Among American girls, 21% said Instagram makes them feel worse about themselves overall. But twice as many said it makes them feel better.
Some girls blame Instagram for problems like anxiety and depression. But self-analysis is not always reliable. People who consult therapists often find that the reason behind their troubles is not what they thought. Someone with depression may blame a spouse when the real source lies in childhood trauma, job stress or physical illness.
The Wall Street Journal series highlighted a teenager who “joined the platform at 13, and eventually was spending three hours a day entranced by the seemingly perfect lives and bodies of the fitness influencers who posted on the app. ‘When I went on Instagram, all I saw were images of chiseled bodies, perfect abs and women doing 100 burpees in 10 minutes,’” she said.
But spending three hours a day on social media may only confirm that some people can overdo anything. Some runners cover five miles a day, but a few become ultramarathon fanatics who neglect their jobs and families. Nike and New Balance are not to blame for the excesses.
Not long ago, it was magazine publishers and advertisers who were vilified for bombarding us with unrealistic images of women. Even the loveliest celebrities and models were commonly pictured with their hips trimmed, teeth brightened and blemishes erased.
In 2011, the American Medical Association condemned the abuse of Photoshop: “We must stop exposing impressionable children and teenagers to advertisements portraying models with body types only attainable with the help of photo editing software.”
The practice was just a symptom of a common human desire: to be more attractive than nature made us. If teenagers didn’t get unhealthy images from Instagram, they would get them from magazines, movies, TV series or cosmetic commercials, all of which feature people who are way above average in looks. Expecting Mark Zuckerberg to cure this malady is like asking Clint Eastwood to eliminate crime.
Whether Instagram contributes in any significant way to the mental health problems of teens is not at all clear. But unbalancing adult minds? That’s something it can do.