Revelations about Instagram’s impact on teen well-being prompt Senate grilling

Hearing follows Wall Street Journal reports revealing internal research that company had not made public.

US Capitol building: Facebook will testify at Senate hearing (Photo: Michael Godek/Getty Images)
US Capitol building: Facebook will testify at Senate hearing (Photo: Michael Godek/Getty Images)

Revelations in The Wall Street Journal about Instagram’s impact on the well-being of teens has prompted a US Senate hearing.

Leaked internal documents from Facebook, the parent company of Instagram, show that the social media giant carried out research that found Instagram made body image issues worse for one third of teen girls.

About 32% of teen girls said Instagram made it worse, 22% made it better and 46% said it made no impact, a slide showed.

Some teens in both the US and UK who experienced suicidal thoughts or feelings of loneliness linked those to Instagram, The WSJ also reported as part of its series, dubbed The Facebook Files, which included some of the original documents.

The research “revealed how clearly Facebook knows its platforms are flawed”, The WSJ said.

Facebook has strongly rejected some of The WSJ’s claims and plans to highlight the positive impacts of Instagram in its testimony to US senators, who called the company to testify.

Antigone Davis, Facebook’s global head of safety, is due to appear at a Senate hearing on 30 September.

Separately, a Facebook whistleblower is expected to give evidence to senators next week about the company and how it handles children’s safety, Reuters reported.

Earlier this week, Facebook published the full research decks from which The WSJ’s conclusions were drawn, claiming that the financial news title had “mischaracterised” the findings, because on most other issues – such as social comparison, eating and sleep issues, as well as body image for boys – Instagram was more likely to have a positive impact on teens.

Pratiti Raychoudhury, vice-president, head of research at Facebook, wrote: “It is simply not accurate that this research demonstrates Instagram is ‘toxic’ for teen girls. The research actually demonstrated that many teens we heard from feel that using Instagram helps them when they are struggling with the kinds of hard moments and issues teenagers have always faced.

“In fact, in 11 of 12 areas on the slide referenced by the Journal – including serious areas like loneliness, anxiety, sadness and eating issues – more teenage girls who said they struggled with that issue also said that Instagram made those difficult times better rather than worse.

“Body image was the only area where teen girls who reported struggling with the issue said Instagram made it worse as compared to the other 11 areas. But here, also, the majority of teenage girls who experienced body image issues still reported Instagram either made it better or had no impact.”

The WSJ also reported on how Facebook looked at creating products suitable for children under 13, the minimum age for users of Facebook and Instagram.

This week, the company announced it was pausing development of Instagram Kids – an ad-free version of the platform with additional parental controls – claiming that it still believed building the product was the right thing to do, but that it wanted greater collaboration with parents, experts and lawmakers. 

The question of how likely Instagram is to have a positive impact on teens is especially pertinent for marketers, given the brand last week launched a major global campaign celebrating the platform’s potential as a space in which young people can discover themselves.

Instagram, which was founded in 2010 and bought by Facebook in 2012, has become an important advertising platform for brands – with upwards of $20m a year in ad sales, according to a report from Bloomberg last year.

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