By Melanie Wells

A recent Wall Street Journal article on Facebook’s internal studies of Instagram and its effects on teen girl users has triggered a storm of parental anxiety and media scrutiny. So far so good – social media is still new enough in our culture that studies of its effects are warranted and useful. Anxiety, however, is less productive. What can a parent do to counter worry?

First, take a deep breath. Not every scare piece applies to YOUR child and YOUR family, and not all initial reporting is equivalent to evidence-based data. The same wisdom that instinctively guides well-meaning parents – know your children and communicate freely and frequently with them – can help here too.

You’ve been providing proactive, preventive care for your child’s well-being from day one: regular checkups with the pediatricians, attention to good nutrition, training on everything from street smarts to learning to swim to alertness for stranger danger. You already know more than you think about how to counter social media dangers, too. You can do it by combining frequent communication from an early age with training in media literacy. But first, let’s take a look at current debate about social media. It’s complicated.

This editor has sifted through several articles on teen Instagram use. What stands out is that expert opinion is not monolithic. Neither are our children’s reactions monolithic – some are more resilient than others in the disappointment they experience while counting up “likes,” or seeing a sharp contrast between their own appearance and the heavily filtered images on their phones. Your task is to give your child every opportunity to be in that resilient group.

On the “worrisome news” side sits The Wall Street Journal’s article, “Facebook Knows Instagram is Toxic for Teen Girls Company Documents Show,” which quotes a 13-year-old who joined Instagram and found herself on the platform about 3 hours a day, “entranced by the seemingly perfect lives and bodies of the fitness influencers who posted on the app…. ‘When I went on Instagram, all I saw were images of chiseled bodies, perfect abs and women doing 100 burpees in 10 minutes,’ she said…” Now 18, the young woman reports seeing a therapist for a year, “to address an eating disorder that she believes is owing to her time on Instagram.”

The article reveals that Facebook-owned Instagram has a research team who have “confirmed through their findings that the problems experienced” by this young woman are not a one-off. “Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse,” the researchers said in a March 2020 report on Facebook’s internal message board, and reviewed by WSJ. For three years, studies by Instagram researchers have found a pattern among young users: that it is harmful to a “sizeable percentage of them, most notably teenage girls.”

“We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,” noted a 2019 report, which also stated, “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression.” The company’s interest in their large teen audience is in keeping them engaged in order to keep revenue flowing, according to  the WSJ article.

Facebook’s 2020 look at teen girl body-image issues and Instagram notes that because teens feel pressured to “share only the best moments [and] look perfect” the combination of that pressure, plus an “addictive product” like Instagram, can send teens “spiraling toward eating disorders, an unhealthy sense of their own bodies, and depression…..” according to the internal research.

The article points to Instagram’s popular filter tools, giving teens opportunity to idealize their appearance. “Instagram made photos the app’s focus, with filters that made it easy for users to edit images…” and later added “tools that touched up people’s faces. Before long, Instagram became the online equivalent of the high-school cafeteria: a place for teens to post their best photos, find friends, size each other up, brag and bully.”

The pandemic didn’t help, with its school closures and months of forced isolation, a situation our kids had never experienced before … “if you wanted to show your friends what you were doing, you had to go on Instagram,” said one 17-year-old.

However, the WSJ article also notes that not all teens are vulnerable to psychological harm from using the app: “Facebook’s research indicates Instagram’s effects aren’t harmful for all users. For most teenagers, the effects of ‘negative social comparison’ are manageable and can be outweighed by the app’s utility as a fun way for users to express themselves and connect with friends….”

These are the more resilient users. And even among the less resilient, there is still a desire to keep using the app. Although Facebook’s research indicated “Instagram can be damaging for many” the WSJ article also points out that “…many teens interviewed for this article said they didn’t want Instagram to disappear.”

A parent might ask, then, is the desire to keep using it comparable to addiction to a harmful substance? How worried should we be?

In a New York Times article, Dr. Laurence Steinberg, Professor of Psychology, warns against making hasty assumptions, because rigorous standards of scientific research may not have been applied in Facebook’s internal studies: “The Facebook studies as described in the documents didn’t include a comparison group of people who didn’t use Instagram, which would be crucial to drawing any inferences about the effects of Instagram use.”

Further, he notes that although teens were quoted as being made sad by Instagram use,  “…three times as many said [Instagram] made them feel less anxious than said it made them feel more so; and nearly five times as many reported that Instagram made them less sad, than … made them sadder.”

He cautioned against jumping to conclusions either way: “We should be just as skeptical about correlational research that links social media use to reports of positive well-being as we are about research that reaches the opposite conclusion. But given the widespread eagerness to condemn social media it’s important to remember that it may benefit more adolescents than it hurts. (Consider how teenagers might have fared during the pandemic without being able to communicate with friends through online platforms.)

He warns parents not to avoid consideration of other possible causes for teen depression:

“Parents who believe that they can treat a teenager’s depression simply by restricting her Instagram use may end up ignoring the true causes of her suffering. Blaming Facebook … can become a convenient way of avoiding other, more uncomfortable … explanations, such as familial dysfunction, substance abuse and school-related stress.”

This debate isn’t new; it’s been circulating in smaller forums for a few years. Author Lena Firestone, writing for PsychAlive in 2019, gives voice to both sides of the debate.  

First she probes the negative view: “…body image issues are especially prevalent on Instagram, used predominately by females …. Photos uploaded to Instagram present an unrealistically perfect image, as countless photos are … photoshopped to hide any flaws.”  She notes that the notion of unrealistic imagery isn’t new, but has become more widespread with social media. She notes the difference between “body-image expectations created by fashion magazines” and Instagram’s  “…millions of new photos an hour for young girls to compare themselves to swimsuit models, wannabe swimsuit models … and celebrities (who have a team of make-up artists, hair stylists, personal trainers, and Photoshop gurus working behind the scenes).”

Social media has upped the ante in its wide reach, but the socio-emotional dilemma caused by idealized imagery is not new.

Firestone then presents a more positive view, noting that teaching kids how to navigate the social media landscape is key. She quotes from a 2017 U.K. report published by the Royal Society for Public Health, examining both positive and negative effects from social media: “Social media can be [used as] a tool for good – the challenge is to ensure social media companies are doing their utmost to make platforms a safe place … and for our young people to be equipped with the relevant skills to be able to navigate them…”

And how best can parents equip kids for this navigation? Teach them to think critically. Teach them social media literacy. These are familiar tactics – nothing you haven’t already heard of.

Finally, in a more personal tone, New York Times “Parenting Newsletter” writer Jessica Grose notes that when she read the WSJ article, “My initial gut response was: I need to keep my two young daughters away from social media until they’re 40. Statistics like ‘32 % of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse,’ are panic-inducing.”

But then Grose names the antidote to the panic, quoting Dr. Yolanda N. Evans, an Associate Professor at the University of Washington Department of Pediatrics: “Starting your kids off with social media literacy at a young age is an essential tool… if you observe your kid looking at an ultra-manicured photo of a friend, you can say something like: ‘I noticed that picture of so-and-so looks professional, how many takes do you think they took to get it?’ It helps them think critically about what they’re seeing.”

Yes, we may be tempted to panic when we scan scary statistics in a news feed. But dig deeper and you’ll find that the tools savvy parents have long relied on – regular communication and teaching children early to think for themselves – may serve just as well in avoiding social media landmines as they do in any potential danger zone.

Critiquing Instagram imagery is simply media literacy, a skill that allows you or your child to stand back and assess the value of a film, video, photo or meme, separately from the emotional effect it may have on you. You may have already attended an NYC-PIA seminar on media literacy, or at your schools. The key principles apply here. To foster social media literacy:

1) Start EARLY (well before you allow your children to have a social media account);

2) Help your kids learn to EVALUATE what they see by modelling your own critical thinking – say, I wonder how they did that makeup, or posed that photo?;

2) Communicate OFTEN. Sit with your child and ask questions to prompt evaluation of the source. Demystify the platform so kids can see the driver of media apps: revenue. Tell them Instagram posts make money for Instagram. The platform has no magical power, it’s a product distributed by a big business. Help your child see that using it is like buying stuff, and we don’t always buy everything we see – we pick and choose! And we don’t always believe everything we read – we think for ourselves.

Your frequent conversations with your children, your investment in earning their trust so they come to you when troubled, and your attention to fostering their critical thinking skills, all prepare your child to confidently meet emotional and social challenges. This one is no different.

Stay involved, stay informed, and above all, for your child’s sake, STAY CONNECTED.

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