Instagram’s Body Image Problem May Be Unfixable, Experts Say

The presents inside Instagram that cause adolescent girls to develop negative feelings about their body image it may be built into the very core of the platform, researchers and former employees have said in the wake of new disclosures that the company did not reveal what it knew about its impact on young users.

Facebook, owner of Instagram, has known for years that the platform is harmful to the mental health of many adolescents, especially girls, but has kept internal research on the subject private, according to a Wall street journal report released Tuesday.

In response to the daily Report, a bipartisan group of senators said they would launch an investigation into what Facebook knew about the effect of Instagram on teen users. Instagram said it was proud of the research and is constantly improving its app’s performance to protect users from harm.

Read more: From Instagram’s toll on teens to unmoderated ‘elite’ users, here’s a breakdown from Wall Street dailyFacebook Disclosures

But researchers and former Facebook employees say that Instagram’s problems may be inherent to the platform and therefore almost impossible to fix. “I think because Instagram is image-based, it’s hard not to turn it into an appearance-centric environment,” said Jasmine Fardouly, a researcher at the University of New South Wales in Australia focused on the impact of social media on social media. body image. “We may be able to reduce the harm, but there will always be some ways that Instagram is harmful.”

Some also point out that Facebook’s interests as a business often conflict with the safety of its users. “We have to recognize the broader point that Instagram and other social media apps are designed to be used by people for as many hours as possible, because that’s how they get the most money,” says Jean Twenge, author of again, a book about the first generation who grew up with smartphones and social media. “That means you are going to have a collision between what is good for your mental health and what is good for your profits.”

The damaging impact of Instagram

An internal Instagram slideshow from March 2020 viewed by the daily He said that when 32% of teenage girls “felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.”

the daily It also found that Instagram research showed that, among teenage users who reported suicidal thoughts, 13% of British users and 6% of American users attributed those feelings to their use of Instagram. The researchers found that the self-image of young women was especially affected when making comparisons between them and what they saw on the platform.

But in testimony before Congress in March 2021, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told lawmakers that research had shown that social media apps had “positive mental health benefits” when used to connect. with others.

According to the researchers, platforms like Instagram can contribute to body image issues and depression because humans have an innate desire to compare themselves to others.

“People have always wanted to present the best version of themselves to others,” says Fardouly. “It’s just that on social media people often present a greatly enhanced and unrealistic version of their appearance.”

Read more: How social media is a toxic mirror

But social media apps like Instagram compound that problem for a segment of the population already prone to making these comparisons, some experts argue. “[It] it could simply be that a system that encourages visual exchange inadvertently creates a prestige economy that is detrimental to the vulnerable, ”said Samidh Chakrabarti, a former high-ranking Facebook employee focused on fixing the platform’s structural problems, who recently left. your position in the company, in a cheep.

That’s an “important distinction” for the assumption that Instagram’s woes stem simply from trying to maximize profits at all costs, Chakrabarti argued, because it points to something deeper, at the heart of what makes Instagram what it is. which is and “suggests different (and harsher remedies” ”.

How Instagram could address the problem

Research shows that when users are presented with a more diverse range of appearances, backgrounds, and body shapes and sizes on social media, there can be a positive impact on their mental health and body image, according to Phillippa Diedrichs, lead researcher on imaging. corporal who said he has done paid consulting work for Instagram.

Diedrichs said that in his consultations with Instagram, he discussed how the company could “integrate some of those findings into the design of the application.”

“It’s things like: how do you make it easier for users to find content that may be beneficial to well-being or to target that content?” he said in an interview with TIME. “If you see users engaging in behaviors or viewing a lot of content that could potentially be harmful to them, how could you push them to say, hey, we’ve noticed you’re seeing this, you’ve been spending a lot of time looking at this, have you been? would you like to see something else? “

The changes, Diedrichs said, are a work in progress and have yet to be released.

Instagram said in a blog post Tuesday that its internal investigation shows that social media use can be both beneficial and harmful, and it said it is working on structural changes to its platform to counter how it contributes to negative body image issues.

“One idea that we find promising is to find opportunities to participate if we see that people are concentrating on certain types of content,” the blog post read. “From our research, we are beginning to understand the types of content that some people believe can contribute to negative social comparison, and we are exploring ways to motivate them to examine different topics if they repeatedly watch this type of content. . We are cautiously optimistic that these nudges will help steer people to content that inspires and uplifts them and, to a greater extent, will change the part of Instagram culture that focuses on how people look. “

A Facebook spokesperson added that other measures the company is considering include allowing users to set reminders that appear after a period of time they choose and take a break if they have been on the app for a while.

Independent researchers said such changes can improve the platform’s worst excesses. “Potentially, if there was more diversity built into those algorithms, it could be helpful,” said Fardouly, who does not have a professional relationship with Instagram.

Reaching the bottom line

Other stories posted by the Wall street journal this week revealed that Zuckerberg said he would not approve changes to reduce the spread of fake content on the Facebook News Feed if those changes would also reduce user engagement.

The reveal is the latest example of Facebook reject or cut measures that would benefit the safety of users, or the health of democracy in general, if they have a negative impact on the company’s profits.

There’s the added problem that much of the content that can worsen young women’s body image perception, such as images of ultra-slim swimwear models, comes from paid ads that make up the bulk of Facebook’s revenue, as opposed to organic content that can go down. – ranked in people’s feeds without Facebook suffering a direct financial impact.

As such, some experts are skeptical that Instagram will ever fundamentally change.

“I don’t see how modifying Instagram would have much of an impact so that people still spend four hours a day on the app, but one hour on more diverse content,” said Twenge, author of again. “If we are going to do some kind of intervention with a teenage girl, it would probably be much more productive to tell her: people are making money with every minute you spend on this app.”

Write to Billy Perrigo in billy.perrigo@time.com.

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