Teen girl outdoors on bench, looking at cell phone

The negative impact of social media, especially Instagram, on the mental health of young people has recently made headlines – here’s what you can do to support your kid or teen in having a healthy self-esteem and developing safe digital habits.

Effects of Social Media on Teens: Understanding Recent Headlines

We’ve long known that social media plays a powerful role in connecting with people, expressing ourselves and exploring the digital world. But recently, the impact of social media, particularly Instagram, has made headlines for its negative effects on teens, especially girls.

What Made the News?

About a month ago, former Facebook Inc. employee Frances Haugen leaked internal communications and research including documents that showed the company, which owns the apps Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram among others, was aware of risks that their sites pose to the mental health of children and teens. Also included in the documents are information about how the sites promote political division and how the algorithms amplify misinformation. Haugen then testified about the information in the documents to Congress on October 5, 2021, asking for lawmakers to begin regulating Facebook.

Much of the information focused specifically on the effects of Instagram on young women. In a thorough investigation of the documents, The Wall Street Journal found a March 2020 slide presentation posted to Facebook’s internal message board which read that “32% 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.”

Other findings include that:

  • More than 40% of Instagram’s users are 22 years old and younger, with about 22 million teens logging onto the site each day.
  • Expanding the base of younger users is vital to the companies’ growth.
  • Teens who struggle with mental health say that Instagram makes it worse, but that they are compelled to spend time on the app for fear of missing out on cultural and social trends.
  • The features that Instagram identifies as the most harmful to teens appear to be at the platform’s core, such as the pressure to look perfect, only to share the best moments and the internal algorithms that govern the “Explore” page sending users to increasingly harmful content.
  • Social comparisons are worse on Instagram than other popular social media sites with teens, such as TikTok and Snapchat.

Facebook disagrees with the characterization of the findings, claiming that their goal is to provide “meaningful social interactions” and that while some users experience these negative outcomes, many teens reported feeling better about their anxiety and depression after using Instagram. Other researchers claim that reliance solely on self-reporting has its limits, and more objective research shows much smaller connections between use of the platforms and mental health.

What Can We Do?

Considering the pressure many teens feel to achieve Instagram perfection, it’s no surprise that 80% of girls say they’ve downloaded a filter or used an app to change the way they look in photos by the time they’re 13 years old.

So what can we do? Boys & Girls Clubs of America, along with long-time partners like Dove, is working to provide parents, educators and youth development professionals with the programs and tools necessary to have critical conversations and model behavior that can change young people’s lives.

Here are some ways to address the impact of social media on youth mental health and self-esteem:

It’s important that teens understand that their self-worth goes far beyond their physical appearance or their Instagram profile, and that they develop healthy online habits to be confident in the digital space.

Learn more about mental health resources that can help your kid manage their emotions and build resiliency.

Stay in the Know

Boys & Girls Clubs of America provides mentorship, mental health services and academic support that boosts youth self-esteem, build confidence and contribute to overall positive and healthy wellbeing. Sign up for our newsletter to receive the latest resources and stories.

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