by Sarah Grizzle, Boys & Girls Clubs of America
Social media plays a powerful role in connecting with others, getting information and expressing ourselves. But over the past year, the impact of social media, particularly Instagram, has made headlines for its negative effects on teens, especially girls.
Concerns around social media’s impact on self-esteem adds to national conversations around the ongoing youth mental health crisis. It’s more important than ever that parents, caregivers, educators and youth development professionals guide young people in having safe experiences online that support their wellbeing and success.
What Made the News?
In late 2021, 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 was 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.
Social Media and Girls’ Mental Health
In a world full of influencers, it’s clear that social media has a significant influence on youth and potential for negative impact on self-esteem and mental health. 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.
Boys & Girls Club alumna Leonela T. knows that pressure well. “I deleted my Instagram because it was a trigger for my self-esteem and body image,” she said. “It took me awhile to realize that whether I like it or not, what I see on my social media feed has an effect on me, mentally and psychologically, and maybe it’s not always benefiting me.” She encourages other girls to find what builds their confidence up, and if popular platforms like social media aren’t supporting their self-esteem, to let them go. “For me, my platform is talking face-to-face. It’s where I do my best.”
What Can We Do?
Boys & Girls Clubs of America, along with long-time partners like Dove, is working to provide parents, caregivers, educators and youth development professionals with the programs and tools necessary to have critical conversations and model behavior that can support kids and teens in having safe digital experiences and positive mental and emotional wellbeing. At Boys & Girls Clubs, trained and caring mentors work with young people to help them learn to manage their emotions and build resiliency so they can engage in every opportunity that comes their way.
Here are some ways to address the impact of social media on youth mental health and self-esteem:
- Learn how modeling self-confidence, having “the selfie talk” and curbing your own negative self-talk can make a big difference to your kid or teen’s self-confidence.
- Download The Confidence Kit, which provides talking points and suggestions for identifying teaching moments when you have the opportunity to truly model self-care and confidence.
- Create an open, judgment-free dialogue about how your teen uses the internet, so that when they have a concern they feel good about coming to you.
- It’s also good to be aware of the signs of cyberbullying and have a plan to stop the situation.
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.