Internal survey on Instagram: ‘We are making body image problems worse for one in three teenage girls’

How bad is Instagram for the mental health of its younger users? It’s a hugely important question, especially now that Facebook plans to launch a version of the app for kids.

AN new report from The Wall Street Journal suggests the answer is “pretty bad,” based on Facebook’s internal investigation that it declined to share with the public. The WSJ recently accessed these in-depth studies, which paint a bleak picture of the damaging effects Instagram is having on its younger users, particularly teenage girls.

For the latter group, Instagram is a powerful engine for “social comparison” – when one judges one’s own worth, attractiveness and success based on comparisons with others. Teenage girls are often bombarded with images of idealized bodies on Instagram, which appear as ads, images in their feeds, and content on the app’s Discover page. This often has a negative effect on the mental health of these users. As a slide from an internal Facebook presentation put it, “We’re making body image issues worse for one in three teenage girls.” (The figure referred to teens who already reported body image problems.)

‘s report The Wall Street Journal is worth reading in its entirety, but here are some highlights from Facebook’s internal research into the effect Instagram is having on younger users:

  • A Facebook survey of teenage Instagram users in the US and UK found that more than 40 percent of those who reported feeling “unappealing” said the feelings started when using Instagram.
  • Research reviewed by Facebook’s top executives concluded that Instagram was designed with greater “social comparison” in mind than rival apps like TikTok and Snapchat. TikTok focuses more on performance and Snapchat on joke filters that “keep the focus on the face”. By comparison, Instagram is more likely to put the spotlight on users’ bodies and lifestyles.
  • Teens told Facebook researchers they felt “addicted” to Instagram and wanted to watch less often, but lacked the self-control to curb their use.
  • “Teens are blaming Instagram for the rise in anxiety and depression,” said an internal Facebook survey presented in 2019 that “this response was unsolicited and consistent across all groups.”
  • Facebook found that among teens who said they had suicidal thoughts, 13 percent of users in the UK and 6 percent of users in the US said these impulses could be traced back to the app.

Such findings are significant in their own right, but become especially damning for Facebook compared to the evasion of its public statements. as the WSJ notes that the company’s top executives, including CEO Mark Zuckerberg, have been questioned by politicians such as Senator Richard Blumenthal about the effects of its apps on younger users, but have not disclosed anything similar to the detailed findings of its own internal investigations. According to the WSJ, the company told senators that its research was proprietary and “kept confidential to promote frank and open dialogue and internal brainstorming.”

sen. Blumenthal told the WSJ in an email: “Facebook’s responses were so evasive — they didn’t even respond to all of our questions — that they really raise questions about what Facebook might be hiding […] Facebook appears to be taking a page from Big Tobacco’s textbook targeting teens with potentially dangerous products while masking the science in public.”

Facebook has made efforts to deal with these issues through changes to Instagram’s user interface, such as an experiment to hide the number of likes (a stat that teens said Facebook made them anxious). But the company said this change didn’t seem to have much of an effect.

“It turned out that it actually didn’t change that much in… how people felt, or how much they used the experience as we thought it would,” Instagram chief Adam Mosseri told reporters in May. “But it ended up getting pretty polarizing. Some people really liked it, and some people really didn’t.” Instead of rolling out the change to all users, Instagram took the counting into account by default, but gave users the option to disable them.