Many parents don’t need to read Meta’s internal research to know that Instagram can be toxic for teens. Those who identify as female are particularly susceptible to content that triggers depression or body-image issues. Following a September Wall Street Journal article that revealed Meta (formerly known as Facebook and the parent company of Instagram) was aware of Instagram’s negative impact on teens, the social media giant claimed its internal research was taken out of context. However, last week Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri testified before a Senate subcommittee to address lawmakers’ questions about the app’s effect on the mental health of its young users.
Instagram seems worried: The day before the hearing, Mosseri published a lengthy blog post detailing new features Instagram plans to roll out next spring to make the app safer for teens, including a stricter approach to the types of content recommended, encouraging users not to dwell too long on any one topic, and tools for parents so they can be more involved in their kids’ social-media experience.
As usual in our increasingly high-tech world, a lot of adults are making decisions about what’s best for minors. But what do teen girls wish grown-ups (particularly their parents) really knew about Instagram? And what advice do they have for kids just starting out on the app? SheKnows interviewed 10 teens across the U.S. to get their honest and uncensored take on Instagram. (Instagram did not immediately reply to SheKnows’ request for comment).
Tweens and young teens are especially vulnerable to body-image issues
Although Instagram requires users to be at least 13-years old, most of the teens we talked to admitted they created their accounts as tweens — and one was just 10! And during those already challenging middle-school years, Instagram made them feel like they didn’t measure up. “I’m very self-conscious about my appearance, so when I see other people posting photos where they look great, I feel less than, which is pretty toxic for me in general,” says Natalie, a 14-year-old from New York City, New York.
“Bathing suit ads will pop up and it’s always the same body type, usually a skinny blonde girl.”
Instagram ads and recommended content also frequently spark feelings of inferiority. “When I first started on Instagram, I saw a lot of posts about diets and what to eat to get the perfect body, but now I’ve blocked a lot of those accounts,” says Melody, a 13-year-old from Queens, New York. Meanwhile Shannon, a 14-year-old from Brooklyn, New York complains about Instagram’s lack of body (and ethnic) diversity. “Bathing suit ads will pop up and it’s always the same body type, usually a skinny blonde girl,” she says.
Users can circumvent Instagram’s algorithms by hiding ads and suggested posts. But that puts the onus on teens to do the work to curate the content they’re served. Of course, as 13-year-old Sophia from Saratoga Springs, New York points out, Instagram isn’t the only place teen girls are fed perfect-body nonsense. “It’s everywhere, throughout all of media in general, not just social media, like billboards and posters and ads,” she says.
The pressure to amass likes and followers is real
Every teen that spoke to SheKnows mentioned the stress of counting their likes and followers, and comparing their numbers to their peers’. “Half my friends buy their followers and likes,” says Milla, a 16-year-old from Marshfield, Massachusetts. Many have experimented with hiding their like counts, hoping to opt out of the competition. But there’s still peer pressure to keep those stats public. “It’s really gross,” says Maggie, a 15-year-old from Charleston, South Carolina. “One of my best friends was in a homecoming picture with me that I posted, and she was like, ‘Why would you shut off your like count?’ I said it didn’t matter. So, she posted the same photo and kept bothering me to compare our likes.”
“Half my friends buy their followers and likes.”
You never know what you’ll stumble across on the Explore page
Because the content displayed on the app’s Explore page is created by accounts that users don’t follow, what pops up there is often a crapshoot. While many teens acknowledged that they found “inspiration” in that section, Milla cautions, “You don’t know what you’re going to find; you can’t really control it. So, it’s a risk going on there. It can be triggering.”
Instagram can waste time, so setting limits is important
The teens reported scrolling through Instagram when they need a distraction or break from responsibilities. “An excess of social media usage usually isn’t the root of all evil for a teen, but a way to cope and disconnect from personal and academic stress that ends up doing more harm than good,” says Reed, a 16-year-old from Princeton, New Jersey. “Don’t blame a teen’s struggles on social media, but recognize that it can be limited in favor of more physical, interactive activities that can make your child happier.” Sometimes teens will go on Instagram just for a minute — and then emerge hours later. Some teens admitted they erased all their content or even the entire app temporarily because it drained their time and emotions. “I deleted it for like a year the summer before eighth grade,” says Milla. “It felt really good not to have that pressure always in the back of my mind. Then I re-downloaded it the summer before high school.” Instagram has launched a Take a Break Tool which encourages users to chill out once they’ve been scrolling for a while. But it only counts consecutive minutes spent on the app, missing teens who pop in and out of Instagram.
Instagram has its flaws — but other social media apps are worse
While every teen had complaints about Instagram, they all said other apps are even more dangerous. “It’s definitely not as toxic as other parts of the Internet,” says Shannon. Multiple interviewees mentioned their love of VSCO, a competing photo-sharing app that’s devoid of likes, comments and follower counts. “It’s a lot more fun and carefree than Instagram,” says Maggie. But Instagram has hundreds of millions more users. That said, Instagram is still losing ground with teens. All the interviewees reported spending exponentially more time on TikTok and Snapchat. “TikTok is much more of a time suck because I can lie in bed and be entertained by that for hours,” says Alice, an 18-year-old in Providence, Rhode Island. “With Instagram, I can’t be entertained for more than five or ten minutes!” At this point, some teens are simply using Instagram as a messaging app. “I spend a lot of time on there talking in the DMs to friends,” says 18-year-old Autumn in Poughkeepsie, New York. “Sometimes I consider taking a break from it, but it’s also the main way I keep in contact with people.”
Remember, Instagram is a corporation that puts its interests before its users
Fronia, a 19-year-old from Houston, Texas, is very cynical — or, perhaps, savvy — when it comes to Instagram. In addition to having a personal Instagram account, she has managed brand accounts for a local theater company and her college, and she sees how algorithms get users addicted. “When it comes to these apps, it’s always important to keep in mind that they’re big businesses,” she says. “I think teens can use Instagram in a healthy way to keep in touch with friends and have a good time. But be aware of what’s going on behind the scenes. Instagram is trying to make money off you, and if that means exploiting the minds of young children, they’ll do it.”