In episode two of The Wall Street Journal’s investigative podcast “The Facebook Files,” it was reported that, written in bold on an internal research report from Facebook, was the phrase “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls.”
I am not the least bit surprised.
Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, is a particularly glamorous platform full of flimflammery disguised as mirror selfies. The influencer was invented and continues to flourish there. Photoshop, plastic surgery and posing tricks abound to transform human bodies into superhuman sculptures. Add in a bunch of still-developing frontal lobes, a pinch of capitalism, stir and suddenly you’ve got a massive mental health crisis on your hands.
This is not to say that anybody who has fallen prey to the league of evil influencers is foolish. Social media is an easy trap to fall into. It will trick you — period. What’s more, it will trick you well. Everybody you see there will suddenly become vastly more interesting, well-traveled, happy and beautiful than you will ever be.
As someone situated at the tail-end of the cusp generation, I am one of the last to claim a relatively analog childhood. My early memories are not of YouTube and Snapchat but rather trips to the library and playing outside until dark. I got a flip phone in seventh grade and my first smartphone came in high school.
I am not going to mount my high horse and denounce kids these days with their cell phones. For one thing, I’m not a saint. I signed up for a slew of social media platforms when I turned 13, just like the majority of Gen Z. For a long time, as I scrolled, I repeated the cliché that most people my age regurgitate: this is what’s keeping me sane, I can’t give it up. Maybe I believed that, too — I don’t know.
What I do know is that every second that I wasted on these apps served only to worsen my mental health and yet I couldn’t stop. I thought that I was immune, and I see this same sense of invincibility poisoning my friends, too. Any time one of them insists to me that their poor self-image has nothing to do with their social media consumption, I feel like I am talking to an alcoholic who believes having vodka in the house does not exacerbate their condition.
That’s how deeply social media can fool you — it makes you believe that you can’t live without it and burrows itself so far in your subconscious that you believe you have beat it, all the while destroying you from the inside.
That Instagram has its tenterhooks in Gen Z’s brains is no accident. The New York Times recently published part of a 2020 internal strategy memo from Instagram that read “If we lose the teen foothold in the U.S. we lose the pipeline.” This same memo detailed a strategy focused on keeping children aged 13-15 on the app for at least three to four hours a day, with the possibility of the marketing trickling down to children as young as 11.
This demographic was born between 2006 and 2010. They have never known a world without Facebook. I know how hard it was for me to remove myself from these spaces which are so detrimental to my well-being — how hard will it be for those who have never known a different world? Why aren’t we protecting them?
I refuse to believe that Instagram/Facebook has anything less than nefarious, greedy and predatory intentions toward young people. They know full well what they are doing and stay the path regardless. Even if the research is shaky, as an op-ed in The New York Times suggested, I believe the statistic that Instagram makes body image issues worse for 33% of girls because I am one of them.
Social media optimists may say that things are looking up. In light of “The Facebook Files,” Instagram put plans on hold for Instagram Kids — their planned children’s social media platform — and supposedly started discussions about safety features and parental controls for minors’ accounts. I have a hard time imagining these discussions as anything less than a shallow PR move before a return to strategy in a year.
Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps Instagram Kids, a space populated exclusively by the under-13 crowd, would not be poisoned by the toxicity that permeates Instagram. Perhaps parental controls and safety features will steer teens away from unregulated internet time and toward life in the real world. Perhaps Facebook will save the children, influencers will go the way of the lamplighter and we will live in the best of all possible worlds.
I’m dubious. Safety features only go so far and parental controls often push adolescents further away. Furthermore, the idea of an app where young children can post or say whatever they want — and these posts become part of the permanent record of the internet, mind you — seems like it can only end badly.
I’m sure there are those out there who think that the headline for this article might as well read “Old Man Yells At Cloud.” Though certain platforms come and go, social media operates in an ever-replenishing cycle that seems like it is here to stay until the grid goes down. There is very little that one fed-up college student can do to stop Facebook, save for praying that one day the servers go offline and never come back.
I can offer a warning: there is no truly healthy way to navigate social media — even if you’re smart, even if you’re careful, even if you think it makes you happy and you like seeing what your friends are up to. We ought to be incredibly wary of the internet. While it is a brilliant tool, it can also be our undoing.