Is Instagram harmful to teens’ mental health? Meta says ‘no,’ but others disagree

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Concerns about the negative impact of social media use on youth mental health and self-esteem continue to lead to calls to find solutions, with some advocating for improving safeguards on the applications to protect teens, while others believe the problem requires legislative action.

A spokesperson for Meta, the parent organization of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, told The Christian Post that the company's research "doesn't conclude that Instagram is inherently bad for teens." 

"While some teens told us Instagram made them feel worse when they were struggling with issues like loneliness, anxiety and sadness, more teens told us that Instagram made them feel better when experiencing these issues," the spokesperson wrote in a Wednesday statement to CP. "That said, we want to help those who may be struggling. We've done extensive work in bullying, suicide, self-injury and eating disorder prevention, and we're focused on building new features to help people struggling with negative social comparison."

The spokesperson said the company has also introduced new default settings and launched "Take a Break" to encourage teenagers to spend time away from Instagram. In addition, the company plans to install a "nudges" feature to direct teenagers toward a different topic if they've been dwelling on the same one for some time. 

Meta's representative noted that the company launched its first set of parental controls in March, which are available through its Family Center. The corporation said it worked closely with experts, parents, guardians and teens to develop the Family Center, which also includes a new education hub where families can access expert resources and tips on topics such as how to talk to teens about healthy social media use.

Others, however, believe Congress has a role to play in safeguarding teens’ mental health and monitoring their use of social media applications. 

"When we know children are being harmed by something, why can't the state help?" Peggy Noonan wrote in an April 7 op-ed for The Wall Street Journal

While the columnist noted that conservatives might hesitate to interfere with companies' ability to "maximize shareholder value," Noonan asserted that "[o]ur greater responsibility is to see to it that an entire generation of young people not be made shallow and mentally ill through addictive social-media use." 

One solution Noonan suggested doesn't involve "technological sophistication" and "could be done with quick and huge public support" and involves placing an age limit on social media sites. She offered 18 as the age users can join sites such as TikTok, Youtube or Instagram. 

"Why not? You're not allowed to drink at 14 or drive at 12; you can't vote at 15. Isn't there a public interest here? Applying such control would empower parents who face 'all the other kids are allowed,' with an answer: 'Because it's against the law,'" she wrote. 

In March, Nature Communications journal published a Cambridge University study suggesting a link between social media use and negative life satisfaction in adolescents. The study suggested certain adolescent age groups were more sensitive to social media use than others, a time when higher social media use led to lesser life satisfaction ratings. These "development windows of sensitivity" were ages 14,15 and 19-years-old for boys and 11 to 13 and 19-years-old for girls. 

Another study published in April by Acta Psychologica reportedly found a "consistent and substantial association between mental health and social media use" among girls. 

"These associations were stronger than links between mental health and binge drinking, sexual assault, obesity and hard drug use, suggesting that these associations may have substantial practical significance as many countries are experiencing rising rates of depression, anxiety and suicide among teenagers and young adults," the study reads. 

As The WSJ reported last September, researchers inside Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, found a link between the site and the development of eating disorders in young girls. The researchers presented the findings in a March 2020 slide presentation posted to Facebook's internal message board. 

"Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse," the researchers said. "Comparisons on Instagram can change how young women view and describe themselves." 

Facebook's research also found that among teens who reported suicidal thoughts, 13% of British users and 6% of American users traced these feelings to Instagram. More than 40% of Instagram's users are 22-years-old or younger, and 22 million U.S. teens use the site each day, the WSJ reported. In contrast, 5 million U.S. teenagers log onto Facebook each day, with 50% of the nation's teens spending more time on Instagram than Facebook on average. 

In response to the WSJ report, Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., the chair and ranking member of the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security, announced last September a probe into Facebook's knowledge of its platform's impact on teenagers. 

That same month, Sens. Edward Markey, D-Mass., along with Reps. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., and Lori Trahan, D-Mass., wrote a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg also asking for answers in light of the report. They called on the company to abandon its plans to develop an Instagram platform for children younger than 13. 

"Children and teens are uniquely vulnerable populations online, and these findings paint a clear and devastating picture of Instagram as an app that poses significant threats to young people's wellbeing," the lawmakers wrote.

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