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OPINION: No One Instagrams Their Bad Days
Young people are struggling with eating disorders, comparison and a warped view of other people - and they blame Instagram.
January 25, 2022
Within the last few months, some media outlets have made the claim that Facebook is having its big tobacco moment. Executives from the company sat before congress and downplayed a fact commonly known among young people: Instagram is harmful for its users’ mental health. This is especially true for teenage girls. “The smaller I got last year, the more likes I would get,” explained Allison, a 19-year-old college student who chose to not use her real name for this story.
“All my friends would slide up and be like ‘oh my god you look so good, how can I lose weight like that too?’ And I was giving them advice but I was in any way telling them ‘don’t start that, it’s a slippery slope. I cry myself to sleep every night, like don’t even begin to think about that.’”
It’s hard to remember when Facebook, which recently changed its name to Meta, made national headlines for something positive. While negative news coverage for any social media website over the past decade seems common, the last year has been a particular kind of reckoning for Meta and its subsidiary products like Instagram. The news cycle has been full of articles exposing the algorithms and practices behind platforms like Facebook and Instagram. The knowledge the company had that their products were doing harm, yet did nothing about it — made these headlines stand out from the others.
Reporting of internal documents from Meta reviewed by the Wall Street Journal, published last September, exposed the harm Instagram can often cause and the internal research that proves it.
“The company’s research on Instagram, the deepest look yet at what the tech giant knows about its impact on teens and their mental well-being, represents one of the clearest gaps revealed in the documents between Facebook’s understanding of itself and its public position… They came to the conclusion that some of the problems were specific to Instagram, and not social media more broadly. That is especially true concerning so-called social comparison, which is when people assess their own value in relation to the attractiveness, wealth and success of others. ‘Social comparison is worse on Instagram,’ states Facebook’s deep dive into teen girl body-image issues in 2020. They noted that TikTok, a short-video app, is grounded in performance, while users on Snapchat, a rival photo and video-sharing app, are sheltered by jokey filters that ‘keep the focus on the face. ‘In contrast, Instagram focuses heavily on the body and lifestyle,’ the article explained.”
In a presentation posted to Facebook’s internal message boards in March of 2020, researchers found that 32% of girls who said they felt bad about their bodies stated that Instagram made them feel worse. For the past three years Facebook has conducted research into how Instagram affects teen girls. The researchers’ findings were all the same: “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,” said one slide from 2019. More than 40% of Instagram’s users are 22 and younger.
If you were to ask young people if Instagram was bad for you, they would probably respond with a “Well yeah, obviously,” but it wasn’t always this way. Instagram’s humble beginnings at the start of the decade transformed after its blockbuster sale to Facebook in 2012 for $1 billion. Change began slowly, like adding an occasional advertisement and the ability to post videos. At the end of the decade, ads were inescapable and influencer culture had become so dominant it was replicated across every college campus in the United States. Young people have naturally emulated fashion and fitness trends for decades, but the dominance of influencer culture allows anyone to be like the celebrities that exist within Instagram. Every town is a media market, so why can’t every town have its own influencers?
Allison was solemn during our discussions, as if it had taken months and years of personal heartache and experience to understand this reality.
“I want everything to be like how they have it. They [influencers] Instagram their food, shopping sprees with their mom, they Instagram their hangouts with their friends. But you don’t see… they could have cried in the dressing room. For some people it is obvious that this content is manufactured inorganically — the challenge comes for teenagers who are exposed to this content daily to not think the content is normal.”
“Here’s another ‘What I eat in a day,’” she said scrolling through her Instagram explore page, which was filled with pictures and videos of mac and cheese, oatmeal, and workout regimens.
“Eating disorders are a competitive disorder like obviously it’s like [expletive] in the head, but you want to be sicker than the person you’re seeing. On Instagram, they’ll do before and after pictures. People in the eating disorder community eventually started saying you have to stop posting before and after pictures because why should I get help if their before looks different than my before. Before and after photos very much still promote what your body should look like after.”
Brooke Snead has made the decision to delete Instagram for months at a time. She explained her choice, saying how it affected her mentally and how she would view herself, especially her body. I asked her what she believed was happening to her that caused her to delete Instagram.
“I feel like a lot of it is comparison. I’ll follow a lot of people I don’t even know like influencers and Instagram models and be like wow they’re so pretty and have the best bodies.’ I’ll be like what the heck, I don’t look like that, I’m slacking.”
Almost everyone I spoke with had Instagram and other social media accounts at an incredibly young age, including me. It would have been impossible to know the impact it would have on young people at the time.
“We all kinda grew up with it. I downloaded Instagram when I was like 11 years old, and I was doing that when I was 11 and not even knowing what I was doing —comparing. So I already had those negative thoughts as soon as I downloaded it,” Brooke continued.
Allison later went into the details of her eating disorder and how she is still impacted by the remnants of comparison and her personal attempts to look like and act an influencer on Instagram.
“To get my certain image I was working out all day every day and counting every single calorie I put into my body. Like, I wouldn’t even grab a mint. I know how many calories are in a mint. I have all these calories in my head for every food I eat, I can tell you bacon, English muffin… if I can’t I won’t eat it,” she elaborated.
“Now I’ve put on the weight and I’m back on Instagram. I was off Instagram for a long time, but now I’ve been reminded about how terrible Instagram is. I’m watching people eat all the time. I watch cheat day videos, but people can eat that, and they can throw it up… When I was my happiest on Instagram was the worst part of my life, I was just taking more photos and craving that attention more.”
Social media algorithms are incredibly intricate and thorough with the type of data it collects on users’ behavior. As an attempt to show you more of the content you engage with, so you spend more time on the app the app keeps track of who you follow and what you like and comment on, but it also tracks how long you are looking at a certain post. This is how content you might not necessarily like or want to see more of is all over your “For You Page”; if you spend time looking at it or reading the comments, the algorithm bets you’ll look at more of it in the future – even if this type of content is bad for you. This is a self-repeating cycle on many young peoples explore pages, where influencers flood the screen and users stare at the posts and compare themselves to what they see. Instagram gives them more of what they look at. Instagram’s new feature shows users someone they aren’t following, but their mutual friends might, and they are almost always a popular user — a local influencer type if you will.
“Now they have a feature that shows you people you aren’t even following in your feed. It’s like “suggested people” and its always somebody attractive and I don’t even know this person like why are they in my feed? It takes away from the normality of it. Even if you had a feed that’s based around normal people, they throw somebody in there that makes you go ‘aw man look at what they’re doing. I need to go to the gym,’” said an exasperated Mel Thomas, who by every metric could be one of these mini-influencers on his college campus. Mel won homecoming king at his university in 2020 and was inducted into his fraternity’s hall of fame this year.
Mel talked about how young men often pretend to be confident and above any form of self-comparison, but believes social media platforms have taken their toll on how men view themselves, but also how they view women.
“As a guy, you’re like, ‘it shouldn’t matter to me,’ but deep down it strikes. It strikes for sure.”
Mel used a metaphor that normal people on Instagram are like a kid from a working-class family on Christmas enjoying the holiday with their family, only to go to school to see the kid from the rich family tell everyone about the amazing gifts he got. It’s not that the kid didn’t like his Christmas, but comparison is the thief of joy.
Mel said that he had been in conversations with his friends, and often when someone brings up a girl they are interested in, someone will ask how many Instagram followers she has and see how many likes she gets on her photos.
“It’s actually something funny, me and my friends talk all the time, and we were talking the other day about some girl, and one of the questions that came up was how many Instagram followers does she have. The conversation kept flowing like nobody questioned why does that matter? It was really a question. What does that mean? Like what value does that hold? It’s a fake world, it’s an imaginary place and we’re putting real value on that?” Mel seemed exasperated while talking, like he was the only one in his circle asking those questions that bothered him to the core.
“We all wanna use these filters, and even like Snapchat filters, they deform your face. They make it look completely different ya know? Even with my Instagram I’ll look through it and be like ‘oh that looks fun, I had a good day’ but that was one of the worst days I had that whole week. It’s just so fake. Even the little fun game day pictures, like I, literally went home crying after that, like something happened and I got into a fight with somebody, but you don’t see that. I know a lot of people who edit their pictures and like edit their bodies. I’m not gonna lie, I’ve whitened my teeth before, and like… that’s fake. That’s how we all wanna come off is perfect, that’s something I really have in my head. With Instagram there is just a pressure to look a certain way,” explained Brooke, who spoke with the clarity that is only earned when separated from her old college town.
The future of these platforms remains uncertain. Some lawmakers have suggested breaking up Meta and its products along with larger technology companies like Google and Amazon. Instagram’s recent time in the spotlight has led to additional criticism of their oversight and algorithms, but it’s often difficult to put into words the opportunities for harm that can be created in these platforms. They aren’t just changing and negatively impacting some users, they are changing society as a whole for younger generations, possibly in an irreversible way. Platforms like Instagram are an integral part of what it means to be a young person in society, but what happens if the platform itself is toxic? You are left with a generation of young people seeking validation from the internet and falsely portraying themselves as a perfect and usually unobtainable version of a human. Not only does it alienate people from one another, it is just downright lying, and young people are most often the victims and perpetrators of it.