Instagram recently announced that in March it will add parental controls such as being able to monitor and control how long teenagers spend on the platform. Adam Messier, the head of Instagram, released this information in advance of his testimony before the Senate where he underwent intense bi-partisan questioning about why the app doesn’t do a better job of protecting young people from its negative effects. All this, of course, follows the whistleblower Frances Haugen’s release of Facebook’s internal research showing that Instagram is harmful to some young people, especially teenage girls. The Wall Street Journal, to whom Haugen leaked the documents, quoted Facebook’s finding that "Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse. Comparisons on Instagram can change how young women view and describe themselves." In addition, "Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression," an opinion “unprompted” by researchers and “consistent across all groups.” Also extremely worrisome is the information that “13% of British users and 6% of American users” who reported suicidal thoughts attributed those thoughts to Instagram.
What makes Instagram so powerful is built into the very core of the platform: “The tendency to share only the best moments, a pressure to look perfect and an addictive product can send teens spiraling toward eating disorders, an unhealthy sense of their own bodies and depression,” stated the research. Furthermore, “the Explore page, which serves users photos and videos curated by an algorithm, can send users deep into content that can be harmful. Aspects of Instagram exacerbate each other to create a perfect storm."
According to the Wall Street Journal article, individuals under 22 represent more than 40% of Instagram users and account for approximately 22 million American teenagers who log on to Instagram daily. My unscientific poll of Holton Upper School students suggests that a significant majority of our students have an Instagram account. Although many of them use TikTok and YouTube as their primary social media platforms, Instagram is still important.
Haugen’s testimony has prompted unusual bipartisan support for regulating social media, and I agree with the Senators who find Facebook’s callous disregard for the impact of their product on young people reprehensible. However, whether or not regulation materializes, this is an issue that educators and parents need to continue to address directly with students and children.
Dr. Lisa Damour, an authority on adolescent girls familiar to many of us, addresses social media in her book Untangled. She begins this discussion with several important observations. The first comes from danah boyd who argues, “Teens aren’t addicted to social media. They’re addicted to each other.”(70) In other words, they desperately want to connect with one another and social media offers a great way to do so. This is especially true since many of them have very busy schedules with little downtime to hang out with friends. Second, real life and social media life mirror one another. Damour cites research that has found that “Girls who enjoy happy supportive friendships in real life use their digital communications to build those friendships, and girls who are having trouble getting along in person also have trouble getting along online.”(71) However, even for girls with a healthy social life, too much social media can have deleterious effects on their social skills and end up negatively impacting their real-life social lives. “Not surprisingly,” Damour says, “relationships depend on complex and subtle social skills best learned in the context of real, not virtual interactions.” (72) During the pandemic, young people have relied on social media for connection with friends and they had precious few activities to distract them. If social media negatively affects teen girls’ mental health, the pandemic magnified that impact.
Dr. Sonya Luthar, a psychologist who works with high achieving schools (and whose company, Authentic Connections, administered the wellness survey we conducted this fall and whose results we will share in the new year), conducted research based on students from three high-achieving independent schools around the country that found a “pronounced links” between the kinds of comparisons on that happen on social media and anxiety and depression. In fact, her work suggests that high achieving students may be more susceptible to the negative effects of social comparisons than more average youngsters because of the pressure they feel to be successful on all fronts.
We spend a lot of time talking about healthy relationships and about social media in Seminar. However, parents can make a big impact on their children’s social media use. If parental messaging and modeling aligns with what we teach in school, those lessons will have greater impact. First, we should be talking with our children about social media starting when they begin communicating with one another digitally. We should be talking about appropriate behavior, being kind and supportive of one another, and generally acting online in the ways we would expect them to act in person. We need to help them understand how social media works and guide them to use it in ways that uplift them, not in ways that allow the algorithms to spiral them down into negative and even dangerous places. When they are younger, we need to monitor their online activity – and not just say we are going to do so, but actually do it. We pay for their phones, computers, and iPads; it’s appropriate for us to put guidelines in place for their use.
While our monitoring should diminish as they get older, discussion of our children’s online communication and social media use should continue in open-ended, non-judgmental ways. Damour encourages us to talk about social media from the perspective of containers and contents. Platforms like Instagram are all about our containers, while offering virtually nothing about our contents. Herein lies much of the stress associated with these platforms: they focus entirely on our containers, aspects of ourselves we cannot substantively change, or not without great effort and often with unhealthy results. We need to help our young people rebalance this focus by encouraging them to think more about their contents – over which they have a lot of control. “Think of it as a zero sum game,” she advises. “Every minute that you’re thinking about your container or somebody else's container is a minute you’re not thinking about the contents. That means you’re devoting a lot of time and a lot of energy to something that is out of your power. Instead, she argues, “you could spare that energy for how interesting you are, how smart you are, how funny you are.” This will help them realize that they are prioritizing outward appearances over their personality and character. And we need to check to make sure we are modeling these values. Do we demonstrate that we value substance over appearance in both what we say and what we do?
Damour and Luthar also both recommend enlisting the help of older teenagers to talk with younger kids about social media. Adolescents, as we all know, are much more likely to listen to people closer to their own age and older students understand the platforms, have grown up in a digital world, and have developed some maturity and experience around social media use.
We at school continue to explore ways that we can help students understand social media and its effects, including the negative impact that social media can have on mental health, while helping them to use it in positive ways. We would hope that parents would do the same. This is not an issue that we as parents should ignore or feel as though we can’t address because it feels uncomfortable or our children don’t want to talk about it. These news stories offer us an entree into the conversation. I encourage us to use it.