Recent reports from whistleblowers and Facebook workers have highlighted the impact of social media on the mental health of young teens — especially Instagram users.
As reported by the Wall Street Journal, about a year ago, researchers at Facebook Inc.-owned Instagram began studying young users’ experiences on the platform and the impact of content consumption on eating disorders.
“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 slide presentation posted to Facebook’s internal message board, reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. “Comparisons on Instagram can change how young women view and describe themselves.”
For the past three years, Facebook has been conducting studies on how its photo-sharing app affects millions of young users. Repeatedly, the company’s researchers found that Instagram is detrimental to a sizable percentage of them, especially teenage girls.
“We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,” said one slide from 2019, summarizing research about teen girls who experience the issues.
“Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression,” said another slide. “This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.”
Can the platform become a positive tool?
Like everything in life, the situation with Instagram and social media has two sides.
As reported by Mashable, the recent rise of “therapy” accounts on Instagram, especially those tailored to people of color, helps destigmatize mental health in communities like the Latinx community.
Latinx exhibit similar vulnerabilities to mental illness as the general population but face disparities in treatment. According to a 2019 report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the prevalence of mental illness is approximately 22% for white adults and 18% for Latino adults. However, when it comes to obtaining care, approximately 50 percent of white adults compared to 33 percent of Latino adults received mental health services.
This community is diverse, but many of its members share similar values, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), a grassroots advocacy organization, such as strong family ties, connections to extended family and social networks, and a resilient approach to life and work that values adaptation in the face of adversity.
While these factors are generally positive, they can contribute to stigmatization and hesitancy to seek mental health care, Mashable explained. Strong family ties can create a reluctance to seek help outside the home and a preference for keeping personal problems private. Connections to extended networks can lead to a sense of shame at the prospect of a diagnosis. And resilience can make asking for help seen as a sign of weakness.
“A lot of people think that therapy is for white people or the privileged and not for everyone else,” Juriana Hernandez, a licensed marriage and family therapist who created the account @_amortherapy_, told the media. She’s using her posts to debunk this assumption, focusing on relationships and narcissistic abuse in particular.
The importance of consuming information with a grain of salt
While the intentions behind social media are never explicit, its effects are. The main benefit of accounts that seek to raise awareness about mental health is precisely that of creating a community that recognizes itself in symptomatology that, although reduced to a couple of memes, traduces itself into the first step in the conversation.
According to research from the University of Nottingham, Instagram content can meet therapeutic requirements and be used as an additional platform to engage in therapeutic discourses.
However, despite its community value, content on Instagram “remains somewhat impersonal” and does not account for an individual’s needs to receive personalized care from a specialist.
Similarly, Instagram also does not offer continuity to those seeking stability in therapeutic discourse. It offers a space where users can express themselves freely, anonymously or not, and find validation by contributing to a community.