The girls in 17-year-old Eva’s high school class use Instagram metrics as a measure of popularity. Their relationship with Instagram is more than typical teen self-discovery; it is parasitic. They obsess over online status symbols like follower counts, “likes,” and inclusion in viral trends featuring “thinspiration” and filter-perfect faces. Eva described this toxic dynamic in a recent Wall Street Journal expose, saying, “Every time I feel good about myself, I go over to Instagram, and then it all goes away.”
Stories like Eva’s are not uncommon. Recently leaked internal research from Facebook, Instagram’s parent company, revealed that the multibillion dollar tech company knew of a correlation between use of its products and deteriorating mental health in young people, but chose to ignore it. For example, executives at the highest levels were well aware that their individualized “explore” pages curated a perfect hellscape of eating disorders, anxiety, and depression for teen users. According to their own experts, 32% of teen girls struggling with body image felt worse about themselves after using Instagram. Unprompted, teens blamed Instagram for increased rates of anxiety and depression, and among teens battling suicidal thoughts, six percent linked their desire to kill themselves back to the app. These findings about young users become all the more alarming considering 40% of Instagram accounts belong to individuals 22 years old or younger.
Facebook has known about this problem for years. Despite internal reports that showed mental health declining as a result of Instagram, the company remained dedicated to expanding profits, noting that “There is a path to growth if Instagram can continue their trajectory.” They recognized their platform created a “perfect storm” of harmful content for young users, but couldn’t stop from homing in on a better bottom line. Rather than reevaluating their tactics, Facebook leaned in, conducting advertising research on children as young as eight years old and exploring “playdate” features for Messenger Kids.
Facebook has now embarked on a PR campaign to revive its image. They paused the Instagram for Kids project and reduced advertising for teenagers, but their lackluster response doesn’t make up for the fact that Facebook kept the parasitic relationship between their platforms and underage users private for years. They researched the consequences but covered up the findings when they realized it would get in the way of making a quick dime. To Facebook, the wellbeing of our kids wasn’t worth sacrificing the “growth” of the platform.
This is nothing less than predatory. Facebook didn’t create the problem of teen anxiety and depression, but they knowingly exploited it for profit. They preyed on our children’s deepest insecurities and threw them into an algorithm tailored to make them feel even worse. Halting a few pilot programs or advertisement options is not enough to undo the systemic prioritization of profit above all else. Facebook consciously decided that advertisements, new platforms, and growth were worth the mental anguish of millions of young people.
Facebook’s time of reckoning is now. Parents and teens deserve resolution before this spiral becomes irreversible.
Marsha Blackburn is the senior senator from Tennessee.