Facebook Documents Show How Toxic Instagram Is for Teens, Wall Street Journal Reports

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  • Facebook has repeatedly found that its photo-sharing app is harmful to a significant percentage of teenagers, according to a Wall Street Journal report published Tuesday.
  • The Journal cited internal Facebook studies over the past three years that examined how Instagram affects its young user base, with teenage girls being most notably harmed.
  • The company is in the process of making a version of Instagram for kids.

Facebook has repeatedly found that its Instagram app is harmful to a number of teenagers, according to a Wall Street Journal report published Tuesday.

The Journal cited Facebook studies over the past three years that examined how Instagram affects its young user base, with teenage girls being most notably harmed. One internal Facebook presentation said that among teens who reported suicidal thoughts, 13% of British users and 6% of American users traced the issue to Instagram.

"Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse," the researchers reportedly wrote. Facebook also reportedly found that 14% of boys in the U.S. said Instagram made them feel worse about themselves.

While Facebook concluded that a large percentage of teenagers aren't negatively harmed by Instagram, according to the Journal, the features that the social media company identified as the most harmful are part of its key makeup.

According to the report, researchers warned Instagram's Explore page, which serves users curated posts from a wide range of accounts, can push users into content that can be harmful. The app also has a culture of posting only the best pictures and moments, and it operates as an addictive product.

"Aspects of Instagram exacerbate each other to create a perfect storm," the research said, according to the Journal.

Top executives have reviewed the research, according to the Journal, and it was cited in a presentation given last year to CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Still, Facebook has reportedly struggled to manage the problem while keeping users engaged and coming back. Facebook is also building a version of Instagram for kids under age 13.

Young users are a key to Instagram's success. More than 40% of Instagram's users are 22 years old and younger, according to materials viewed by the Journal.

In a blog post, Instagram's head of public policy, Karina Newton, responded to the reporting and said the company is researching ways to pull users away from dwelling on certain types of Instagram posts.

"We're exploring ways to prompt them to look at different topics if they're repeatedly looking at this type of content," Newton said. "We're cautiously optimistic that these nudges will help point people towards content that inspires and uplifts them, and to a larger extent, will shift the part of Instagram's culture that focuses on how people look."

The Journal report exacerbated at least one lawmaker's concerns over Facebook's exploration of a children's version of Instagram. Rep. Lori Trahan, D-Mass., has made children's mental health concerns in connection with social media use a key priority and previously rebuked Facebook for considering such a product.

Following the Journal's report, Trahan called for Facebook to "immediately abandon plans for Instagram for Kids" and focus instead on protecting existing young users.

"Facebook's internal documents show that the company's failure to protect children on Instagram – especially young girls – is outright neglect, and it's been going on for years," Trahan said in a statement.

"Facebook has no business developing additional social media platforms explicitly designed for our children when they can't be trusted to keep their current house in order."

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has also made children's mental health online a cornerstone of her platform. In a statement Tuesday, she said Facebook "refused to comply" with a request from Republicans on the committee in March asking for its internal research on its products' impact on kids' mental health.

A Facebook spokesperson said that due to the proprietary nature of the research and confidentiality concerns for participants in the studies, it can be difficult to share internal data outside of the company. Still, the spokesperson said, Facebook seeks to be more transparent about its internal studies.

"This also leaves us wondering what else they are hiding," McMorris Rodgers said. "We will continue to demand transparency from Facebook and other Big Tech companies, especially as it relates to the harm their products have on our children."

Republicans have circulated discussion drafts of bills including one that would require platforms like Facebook to submit regular reports to the Federal Trade Commission on their companies' impact on children's mental health.

Facebook "knows Instagram is toxic for teens, but they don't care — they're too busy shutting out conservatives and stifling free speech," Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., said on Twitter.

Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., called the findings in the report "appalling" in a tweet and said he would be "demanding answers from Mark Zuckerberg."

Democratic FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra later tweeted, "Given the financial incentives embedded in its surveillance-based business model, it is yet another sign that the company cannot be trusted with our data."

Read the full Wall Street Journal report.

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