Facebook-owned Instagram has been criticised for keeping secret its internal research into the effect social media had on teenager users.
According to the Wall Street Journal, its studies showed teenagers blamed
Instagram for increased levels of anxiety and depression.
According to campaign groups and MPs, it demonstrates that the company prioritises profit over all else.
Instagram stated that the study demonstrates its “commitment to understanding complex and difficult issues.”
The Wall Street Journal’s report, not disputed by Facebook, finds:
- A 2019 presentation slide said: “We make body-image issues worse for one in three teenage girls”
- Another slide said teenagers blamed Instagram for increased levels of anxiety and depression
- In 2020, research found 32% of teenage girls surveyed said when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse
- Some 13% of UK teenagers and 6% of US users surveyed traced a desire to kill themselves to Instagram
- Instagram conducted multiple focus groups, online surveys and diary studies over a number of years
- In 2021, it conducted large-scale research of tens of thousands of people that paired user responses with its own data about time spent on Instagram and what was viewed
In response to the WSJ report, Instagram published a lengthy blog defending its research.
According to the WSJ, the storey “focuses on a limited set of findings and casts them in a negative light,” but the issue was far more complex.
“We’ve done extensive work around bullying, suicide and self-injury, and eating disorders to help make Instagram a safe and supportive place for everyone,” the company wrote in a blog post.
“Based on our research and expert feedback, we’ve developed features to help people protect themselves from bullying, given everyone the option to hide ‘like’ counts, and continued to connect people who may be struggling with local support organisations.”
It was working on prompts to encourage people who were constantly dwelling on negative subjects to consider other topics, it said.
It also promised to be more open about its research in the future.
‘Profit before harm’
However, Andy Burrows, head of child safety online at the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, said it was “appalling they chose to sit on their hands rather than act on evidence.”
“Instead of working to make the site safe, they’ve obstructed researchers, regulators, and the government, as well as run a PR [public-relations] and lobbying campaign to prove the opposite.”
MP Damian Collins, who chairs a UK parliamentary committee investigating how big technology should be regulated to protect users’ safety, stated that it was time to “hold them to account.”
“The Wall Street Journal Facebook files investigation has revealed how, time and again, the company puts profit before harm,” he said.
“According to its own research, a large number of teen Instagram users say the service makes them feel worse about themselves – but the company just wants to keep them coming back.”
The Online Safety Bill aims to give the regulator Ofcom the authority to fine companies that fail to act on potentially harmful content.
Fairplay (formerly the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood) in the United States said the news demonstrated that Instagram was not a safe place for children.
“In a move straight out of the playbook of big tobacco, Facebook downplayed the negative effects of its product and hid this research from the public and even from members of Congress who specifically requested it,” it said.
“And now, in the ultimate display of arrogance and disregard for children, the company wants to hook young kids on Instagram.”
Fairplay also requested that the US government demand that Facebook release its research and halt its plans to launch Instagram Youth.
Earlier this year, Facebook revealed plans to create an ad-free Instagram for under-13s in order to keep them safe.
Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University’s Stern School of Business, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme he had met Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg to discuss the social network’s effect on mental health.
“He was interested but he believes the research is ambiguous and does not point to harm,” Mr Haidt said.
“Of course, we now know they conducted their own research, which did indicate harm.”
They conducted focus groups, online surveys, and diary studies, so this was not a coincidental discovery.
“I wouldn’t expect them to come forward the first time they find evidence of harm and say, ‘Oh my God, our product is harmful,’ but if they have multiple sources of evidence and evidence from outside the company, I think the picture is pretty clear.”
However, he added that significant changes at the company would be required to make a difference.
“The platform encourages children to post photos of themselves, which are then raided by others, including strangers from all over the world,” he said.
“There is no way to fix it if this is the business model.”