Instagram’s priorities: mental health, or addiction?


Photo courtesy of BBC

Stephen Rolfes, columnist

Here we go again: Facebook making headlines after the latest allegations that Instagram could be worsening the mental health of teenage girls. But who can trust the social networking company after years of data breaches, political manipulations and the spreading of false information?

Let’s face it, social media does breed unrealistic expectations. When jumping on platforms, there’s the pressure to look perfect or the tendency to share only the most positive and polished parts of life. And for a teenager, that impulse can be magnified if manipulated in certain ways. Facebook not only knows this, it exploits it. At least that’s what the company’s former data scientist told Congress on Oct. 5.

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen also testified about the need for greater oversight and transparency of the social media behemoth in order minimize harm done to kids that use social media. Her testimony came after Facebook was questioned a week earlier on the subject.

Haugen, who left the company in May, told Senators that Instagram’s algorithms are, in fact, specifically designed to addict teenagers so the company can maximize advertising revenue by monetizing engagement time. All that perpetual clicking and scrolling leads to the worsening of teens’ mental health and perceptions of their own bodies, especially for girls, she claimed.

But you don’t have to take her word for it.

On Sept. 23, Haugen released internal documents to the Wall Street Journal outlining the extent to which the tech giant is aware of the harm it’s causing kids. Her main criticism is that Facebook maintains an internal policy that seeks to expand its platform at any cost, prioritizing profits over ethical limits.

According to the company’s leaked internal studies, 13.5 percent of teen girls in the United Kingdom reported more-frequent thoughts of suicide since getting on Instagram. Other leaked studies revealed that 17 percent of teen girls believe the app worsened their eating disorders, and 32 percent reported that when they were feeling bad about their bodies, Instagram worsened these feelings. From these results, it’s clear that Instagram is designed in a way that preys on teenagers who feel insecure, and exacerbates these insecurities.

Despite discovering the results of the study, Haugen claims that Facebook is refusing to act to make Instagram a safer place for teens, and is instead continuing to design their algorithms in a way to exploit frustration and insecurity and foster addiction. The company understands that if it wants to keep growing, it must find new users. To do so, it preys on the younger generation, making sure they establish habits before they have good self-regulation.

In her Senate testimony, Haugen likened this to nicotine addiction, stating, “it’s just like cigarettes, teenagers don’t have good self-regulation. They say explicitly, I feel bad when I use Instagram and yet I can’t stop.”

She says that Instagram is designed in a way to promote unrealistic bodies that are nearly impossible to attain, and often dangerous to attempt.

Senator Ed Markey seemed to agree. “Facebook is just like Big Tobacco, pushing a product that they know is harmful,” the Massachusetts Democrat said, calling its photo-sharing site “Insta-greed.”

Is it right that Facebook just keeps optimizing whatever keeps users scrolling and clicking, regardless of the consequences? While there is no clear fix, it’s clear the fix needs to happen soon.