Facebook has halted development on Instagram Kids, a version of Instagram designed for tweens, following protests from lawmakers, parents, and mental health experts. The outcry came after the Wall Street Journal published leaked documents detailing Facebook’s internal research on how Instagram affects teen body image, anxiety, depression, and suicidal behaviors.
These new revelations on the negative effects of Instagram provide a deeper understanding of why social media is bad for mental health, and illuminate the potential dangers of an Instagram Kids app. They also bring up questions about who is ultimately responsible for the psychological effects of social media on kids, and what parents can do to protect their tweens and teens.
The Controversy Around Instagram Kids
Over the last decade, Instagram has far surpassed Facebook in the teen social media world. Some 22 million teenagers have Instagram accounts, compared to 5 million who use Facebook. In addition, close to half of Instagram’s users are under age 23.
While Instagram (which is owned by Facebook) bars children younger than 13 from signing up, many do anyway, according to the company. That’s why Facebook has been working on a new version of the app called Instagram Kids, specifically for ages 10 to 12. The company stopped work on the product on September 27, following the controversy created by the leaked research, and on September 30, Facebook executives testified at a congressional hearing on the issue.
What makes this situation particularly disturbing is the fact that the company knew about the negative effects of Instagram on teen mental health, and was still moving ahead with Instagram Kids. That has led lawmakers and mental health experts to compare Facebook to tobacco companies who hid research on cigarettes, nicotine addiction, and lung cancer.
“[Facebook] has hidden its own research on addiction, and the toxic effects of its products … It has weaponized childhood vulnerabilities against children themselves, [and] it’s chosen growth over children’s mental health and greed over preventing the suffering of children.”
– Richard Blumenthal, chair of the US Senate subcommittee investigating Facebook and Instagram Kids
The Negative Effects of Instagram on Tweens and Teens
Facebook’s research on Instagram found that the harm the app does to teen mental health mainly falls into three categories:
- The negative impact of comparison to others
- Pressure to show a positive face to the world
- Online interactions or reactions to others’ posts, including cyberbullying and FOMO
Moreover, teens said that the social comparison they experience on social media is worse on Instagram, because the app focuses more on lifestyle and body image. Adolescents blame this constant comparison for increases in anxiety and depression among their age group. They also say that the app has undermined their confidence in the strength of their friendships.
In addition, teens in Facebook’s survey noted the addictive quality of the app. They talked about their desire to spend less time on Instagram, but said they didn’t have enough self-control to change their scrolling behavior. Tweens using Instagram Kids might be even more vulnerable to social media addiction.
How Instagram Affects Body Image
One of Facebook’s internal research documents focused primarily on Instagram and body image. In examining how Instagram affects body image, the researchers found that teens, especially girls, feel intense pressure to present their physical appearance in a positive light. For teen girls, much of the negative social comparison on Instagram and other social media apps is related to appearance—leading to increased depression, lower levels of happiness, and higher rates of eating disorders.
Furthermore, doctors and clinicians report that their patients with eating disorders often learn from Instagram and other social media apps how to purge or how to restrict food intake. Once a user starts searching on Instagram for information about workouts or healthy food, the app’s algorithm starts feeding them posts about how to lose weight, what the “ideal” body image looks like, and other triggering information.
More Instagram Mental Health Statistics
Research conducted by Facebook in 2019 and 2020 found the following Instagram and mental health statistics, which reveal how an Instagram Kids app could impact tweens.
- 60 percent of teen girls and 40 percent of teen boys on Instagram experience negative social comparison.
- Instagram and body image statistics show that 37 percent of teen girls say they feel pressure to look perfect in their posts.
- One-third of teen girls say the content they see makes them feel worse about themselves.
- Among teens who reported suicidal ideation, 13 percent of British users and 6 percent of American users traced those thoughts to Instagram.
- Close to half of users who reported feeling unattractive said the feeling began on Instagram.
- 25 percent of the teens who reported feeling “not good enough” said the feeling started on Instagram.
- 14 percent of teen boys in the United States said Instagram made them feel worse about themselves.
Clearly, the negative effects of Instagram are significant. But are there also positive effects of social media on mental health? Yes—research shows that the apps can support connection and inspire young people to try new things. However, for the increasing number of teens who are already struggling with their mental health, Instagram and other social media platforms appear to make the bad feelings worse.
5 Ways Parents Can Prevent the Negative Psychological Effects of Social Media on Kids
Now that it’s become obvious why social media is bad for mental health, what can parents do to protect their tweens and teens from Instagram or a future Instagram Kids app? Technology can help: Instagram head Adam Mosseri said the company planned to introduce new parental control features.
However, that’s only part of the picture. Parents need to ensure that kids have other, healthier ways to connect with friends and build a positive self-image. Here are five strategies recommended by Don Grant, MA, MFA, DAC, SUDCC IV, PhD, Newport Academy’s Director of Outpatient Services in Santa Monica.
- Be a good role model. When parents model responsible technology use and prioritize real-life connections and experiences over online interaction, teens are more likely to do the same.
- Make social media an opportunity for family connection. Instead of allowing kids to withdraw into their online worlds, make social media engagement a family activity. Shoot a video together for TikTok, or invite your teen to help make a special dinner and post pictures on Instagram.
- Guide your teen to recognize the triggers that send them to their devices. Then help them to develop a list of real-life activities that can fill that need, whether that’s time with friends, physical activity, or talking with a parent or therapist about what they’re going through.
- Educate yourself and your kids about the apps. Be proactive in talking to your teen about topics like the negative effects of Instagram or how artificial intelligence works to keep them scrolling. When teens understand that the apps they’re using are designed to keep them online, they may have more motivation to take back the control.
- Establish boundaries around social media usage. Set aside screen-free zones and times, like the dinner table and bedtime, and make sure everyone (including adults) abides by them.
Treatment for Depression, Anxiety, and Device Management at Newport Academy
At Newport Academy, we guide teens to address the underlying causes of the depression, anxiety, loneliness, and lack of self-worth that are exacerbated by social media. Our clinical model centers around authentic, in-person connection with loved ones and one’s larger community.
In addition, Dr. Grant’s approach to healthy device management equips teens with the skills and self-knowledge to address the negative consequences of social media overuse and the psychological effects of social media on kids.
Contact us today to find out more about how we guide teens to enhance self-worth, create fulfilling relationships, and learn skills to support a thriving future.
J Adolesc. 2020 Apr; 80: 73–83.
Clin Psych Sci. 2017 Nov; 6(1). 3–17.
Eating Disorders. 2014 July; 47(5): 516–523.