Just as teens are beginning to discover their individuality, social media swoops in with unrealistic expectations that can subvert self-worth and have lasting ramifications.
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The revelations that Facebook officials knew Instagram has worsened body image issues for a sizable portion of teen girls had the rare consequence of stopping the company’s increasingly dystopian ambitions in their tracks. Last week, the social media giant paused its planned launch of Instagram Kids, a Joe Camel-like gambit that, in Facebook’s words, would allow them to “leverage play dates” and other parts of the childhood experience to expose kids to targeted advertising and get them hooked on the apps.
It’s rare to see Facebook retreating on its business ambitions. But even Silicon Valley executives, who insulate their own kids from the products they push on the rest of the population, can’t ignore that social media is contributing to an unprecedented mental health crisis among kids and teens. The percent of teens reporting moderate or severe depression has risen substantially from just two years ago—from 25 percent to 38 percent, according to survey results published earlier this year by Common Sense, Hopelab, and the California Health Foundation, correlating with the time period when the pandemic forced kids to spend even more time in front of screens.
People in my older millennial cohort—those of us whose teen years were spent on Napster or AOL Instant Messenger, and can remember when “The Facebook” came to our college campuses—muse about how nightmarish it must be to go through high school with social media. Yet, we have a sense of inevitability about apps like Facebook and Instagram, which leave most of us feeling overwhelmed, powerless, and thinking worse of humanity and ourselves. But we have more agency than we think to push back on Facebook, as the company’s capitulation on Instagram Kids is showing. We can no longer shrug off social media as just another difficulty of being a teen. To motivate us, we should take the time to understand what makes it such a toxic space in the first place, especially for teen girls.
In 2017, psychologist Jean Twenge wrote an article in The Atlantic called “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”—and the backlash was swift. Parsing her argument with academic detachment, critics said Twenge was overreacting because she had relied on observational studies, was unable to show a “direction of causality,” and didn’t note social media’s positive outcomes. (Admittedly, Twenge’s framing, which gave the sense this generation was hopelessly defective, detracted from her important point.) What pervaded these criticisms was a belief that while social media was a problem, some teens who were struggling may have already been vulnerable, and that ultimately, it could be managed if parents encouraged better digital habits.
Four years later, much has changed. During the Trump years, we watched as adults fell down the QAnon rabbit hole that would incite a number of them to attempt to overthrow our country. We’ve been horrified by the speed at which vaccine misinformation can be shared and amplified and believed. Many of us have gone on news fasts, social-media detoxes, and tech-free weekends because we realize how easily we can be derailed, even on a good day, by something that sucks us in online.
If this is the experience of adults, imagine what it’s like for younger people. Teenagers are experiencing significant physical, mental, and hormonal changes that contribute to intense emotions, yet the ability to recognize and process these emotions is much less developed. As they become more independent from their parents or other caretakers and more reliant on friends, they have a strong need to belong socially. At the same time, they’re starting to develop a more individual identity, though still dependent on their families and friends for support.
“I think [social media] fundamentally changes the way you grow up as a human and turn into yourself,” says Maddie Freeman, 20, who started an initiative called No Social Media November after 10 people at her high school in Littleton, Colorado, including several close friends, died by suicide, all of whom spent a lot of time on social media. “Back then, none of us knew what was going on. It was fun, we liked seeing photos of ourselves. It expanded social circles.
This emotionally and developmentally difficult age, one in which mental health issues start to arise, is “the same time this platform swoops you up,” Freeman explains. While Freeman doesn’t believe social media is the sole cause of depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues, she has experienced its negative impact directly and observed classmates. Since 2012, the year that “social media use moved from optional to ubiquitous among adolescents,” girls attempts at suicide rose dramatically, as Twenge and Jonathan Haidt recently wrote. (This was also the first year when a majority of Americans owned a smartphone.) There has been a dramatic rise in suicide rates among Americans aged 10 to 24—by 56% between 2007 and 2017, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (The U.S. is not alone in seeing mental health issues over this time period: in 36 of 37 countries measured, teen loneliness has risen.) Throughout the pandemic, increased social media use was linked to higher levels of depression and anxiety symptoms, according to research by the Brown-Lifespan Center for Digital Health at Brown University. At the same time, there is a “severe” child psychiatrist shortage in much of the country.
And social media is hard on all teens. Boys can be affected by the images of athleticism and masculinity, but they tend to spend more time gaming than on social media, and report less depressive effects than girls. Nonbinary youth are more at risk of cyberbullying but also use social media to connect with others like them, especially if they aren’t finding that at school.
For teen girls, the experience can be particularly exacting, though. On Instagram, they’re flooded with images of girls who seem prettier, thinner, and more accomplished, and the system of likes and shares that can provide an immediate sense of approval—or rejection. Even if it makes them feel bad, the high school and college women I’ve talked to say it’s hard to go off social media given that almost everyone is on it, many spending hours a day on the apps. According to a 2019 study by the Youth, Media & Wellbeing Research Lab at Wellesley College, over 90 percent of a group of 773 middle schoolers surveyed had their own smartphone, and about three-quarters had already begun using Instagram or Snapchat. During the pandemic, when screen use went up for everyone, visits to the emergency room for suspected suicide attempts rose 50.6 percent among females, compared to the same period in 2019. That number increased for males too, but less dramatically, by 3.7 percent. This increase may in part owe to more parental interventions—which is a good thing—though experts believe it still is an alarming rise for teen girls. “It can mean there is more help-seeking going on,” says Christine Yu Moutier, chief medical officer of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Nonetheless, she adds, “there is tremendous reason to be concerned.”
Mental health practices have filled during COVID-19 with girls experiencing eating disorders. Although Instagram bans pro-eating disorder content, supposedly benign images and stories, like fitness competitions, and before-and-after pictures, can be triggering. Add to that point, filters and other augmented reality tools which allow teen girls to edit away their flaws and aspire to an ideal of beauty that isn’t real. For Joanna Nolen who, as an adult, recovered from an eating disorder that started in high school, social media was an unhealthy way to seek validation from people. “I would only post pictures that had the best angle, made me look the thinnest, showed me in the best light possible,” she says.
Nolen, who is 30, feels fortunate that Instagram wasn’t around when she was even younger. “Had social media been a thing when I was growing up, my life could have taken a drastic turn for the worse,” she says. When a person is in a difficult place, social media is particularly dangerous. The success-oriented content that algorithms and likes value encourages social comparison—particularly Instagram. More than just the act of lining oneself up to others, social comparison can become an orientation, or way we view the world, that leads to feeling isolated and depressed, as we see each other not as connected but as competing. Moreover, when we spend so much time focusing on the outsides of others, we tend to dissociate from our own needs. “Your personality online suddenly became the new most important part of yourself,” says Freeman.
Women who’ve been successful on Instagram have talked about losing a more authentic self to the version they poured themselves into from years on social media. “With Instagram, self-defining and self-worth-measuring spilled over into the rest of the day, eventually becoming my default mode,” says Tavi Gevenson, who started on the app when she was 15. “If I received conflicting views of my worth or, looking at other people’s accounts, disparate ideas about how to live, the influx of information could lead to a kind of panic spiral. I would keep scrolling as though the cure for how I felt was at the bottom of my feed.”
“I quit social media for my 12-year-old self,” said influencer Essena O’Neill. “I let numbers define me at 12 and that stopped me from becoming the person I am and that should be.”
But the success of these women, and so many other influencers, has impacted kids and teens. According to surveys, influencer and “YouTube star” are some of the most popular career options for youth even as stories of young influencers experiencing mental health breakdowns become more common. The decision to be on social media isn’t just social, it’s economic. At a young age, girls must decide how much of their personal development they want to put into being an influencer, or a “That Girl”.
That’s because social comparison, individualism, and body dysmorphia are terrible for mental health, but great for succeeding on Instagram. And that is the tradeoff. The more time teen girls devote in pursuit of social media success, the more they feel compelled to show only their most attractive, high-achieving, put-together self at all times. Rather than spending time developing the parts of themselves that might promote their flourishing — an interest in science, or music, or writing; getting into a physical activity because they enjoy it rather than because it will make them thin — they expend energy on diet and exercise and ultimately the kind of tech-driven mediocrity that isn’t as much soul-crushing as it is soul-numbing. Teen girls have to make a decision—whether or not they realize it—to what degree they will let their online personality become the most important part of themselves.
Still, social media has allowed people who wouldn’t have been able to in previous media ecosystems to connect and be heard today. If you can use these apps intentionally, there is value in them—from meeting people on the other side of the world who care about the same thing you do to learning you’re far from the only one struggling with mental health issues. For example, Nolen has shared her stories of recovering from an eating disorder through the Eating Recovery Center, and connected with other girls and women who share in their experience. It’s not that social media doesn’t have benefits, but that the experience is much more bad than good for too many people’s mental health.
Even those who’ve figured out how to use it constructively say it’s hard. Vinaya Sivakumar moved from Ohio to a residential school in India for high school after experiencing mental issues related to self-harm content online. Because her school abroad didn’t have digital technology, she was off social media for ninth and tenth grade. Now, back in Ohio again, she mainly uses the apps to advance her work as a leader of HeadsUp, an organization focused on uniting students around issues of digital wellness. “I wish I could say that social media doesn’t make me anxious anymore, but it still does,” she says. “I still get a little sense of FOMO even though I’ve mostly been away from social media for so long.”
According to Yu Moutier, “For some who naturally utilize social media in smaller doses are intentionally connecting to body-positive sites or mental health stigma reducing messages, that can be extremely constructive. [But] the prevailing messages are still extremely toxic regarding body image. For those vulnerable young people and teens it could have an extremely negative impact let alone potential for cyber bullying.”
The social media profit model of ad-based revenue, and the value system of its founders, amplifies the stew of materialism, toxic productivity, conspicuous consumption, and unrealistic body image from which most of us need a break. This is not solely a social media problem—it’s a capitalism problem—but Facebook, as a huge, publicly-traded company with firm roots in an unapologetic bro culture, has enthusiastically embraced this ethic.
“Basically all of the things that would contribute to these platforms being healthier for people to use, which is basically to spend less time, don’t follow strangers, don’t spend time passively scrolling through this random feed that’s being suggested to you,” University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Melissa Hunt told NPR, “that completely undermines their whole business model.”
With Facebook in perhaps its most vulnerable moment, we have a chance to ask ourselves whether or not we want our society to exist in the image of social media that promotes a fake and unhealthy view that too often leaves kids and adults feeling depressed and anxious.
In its response to the Wall Street Journal report, Facebook argued that a sizable number of teens are happy from using social media. They’ve pointed out that the connection between depression, anxiety, and social media isn’t straightforward: we don’t know whether young people are depressed because of social media, or whether they turn to social media because they’re depressed.
This gives the idea that there are two types of people in the world: well-adjusted, happy people who are able to use these tools constructively to connect with people and achieve their goals and vulnerable and unwell people who fall into a social media rabbit hole.
It’s a flawed and particularly American framework based on the premise that individuals are independent rather than interdependent and that people are either sick or well. The reality is that we all are vulnerable to spirals of self-doubt and insecurity, particularly when we’re going through rough patches.
“When people are more vulnerable, they might seek out potentially negative influences that are available for access on social media,” says Ellen Astrachan-Fletcher, regional clinical director of the Eating Recovery Center in the Midwest and a lecturer at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. She points out that “Diet ads and stories about weight loss journeys might seem inspirational and helpful to some people, and to other people, they are basically promoting something idealized that a person can never feel like they can reach.”
As we consider this opportunity to reign in Facebook and its excesses, it’s worth asking how we can collectively regulate a technology so it’s not so easily available to make us feel worse when we’re most vulnerable. We shouldn’t have to do it on our own, requiring as it does enormous stores of willpower and mentally healthy behaviors of which we aren’t always capable. A society should help each other thrive, and not just those who are already doing well.
If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.
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