We’re all talking about “that” Wall Street Journal article about Instagram: Facebook Knows It’s Toxic for Teen Girls. You’re probably talking about it. Or your kids are. I know it’s all we’ve been seeing in our social feeds this week around here, and easily 15 people forwarded it to me in the first 24 hours.
(And sorry for the paywall. If you’re an Apple News subscriber you can see the article there, or there are excerpts all over the media, like this one from BBC.com)
Putting aside the issues about the responsibility a social media platform should exhibit toward its teenage users for just a moment here — that’s a whole huge other issue right there — I wanted to see my own teens’ thoughts on the findings. So brought it up to my 14-year old daughter.
As we walked home together yesterday, I explained to her that there is real evidence that Instagram can be harmful to the mental health of girls her age, contributing to severe depression, body image issues, eating disorders and even suicidal ideation. I told her that scrolling through highly filtered portraits, FaceTuned selfies and “perfect” skin and bodies all day long can really have a negative impact on kids, and especially girls her age.
Then I asked her, “what do you think we should do about this?”
She thought for a brief second, then said:
“I think people should stop following the people who make them feel bad about themselves.”
It was such a quick, simple response, it surprised me. I really had to think about it.
I decided it was simple, yes. But maybe not as simplistic as it sounded at first.
Certainly, addressing issues around self-esteem, mental health and social media is not as easy as telling our kids “unfollow half your feed” (let alone “delete your account”), but her suggestion did made me think hey, maybe this is a terrific place to start.
After all, it’s not an Instagram problem we’re talking about per se, it’s a cultural problem. Before social media it was fashion magazines that had girls comparing themselves to unattainable images of perfection. It was TV. It was Hollywood. It was the modeling industry and waif culture. It was the SI Swimsuit Issue. It was pro-Ana message boards. It was photo retouching.
It’s always been something.
So we need to be sure to add this to another in the list of important talks we have with our kids if we’re not already. (And not just girls, either, even if they’re more impacted here.) We need to continue to guide responsible choices when it comes to social media, the same as we do their choices about school, friends, sexuality and dating, drugs and alcohol, risky behavior of all kinds.
You know. All those fun things that worried us about raising teens even before our babies were out of their cribs.
We can do this. We have to make the effort, because social media is not going away. And I know that can be scary for those of us who didn’t grow up as social media natives and don’t always know exactly how to guide the discussion, but fortunately there’s a lot of help out there from thoughtful, non-alarmist experts who can guide us.
So where do we start?
Let’s try sitting down with our kids, scrolling their feeds with them (yes, really), and asking them about who they follow and why. Ask them how they feel when they see a photo like X or Y. Ask them who inspires them. Ask them who they wish could be friends with IRL. And ask them to talk to you candidly about what they know about filters and face or body “tuning” apps.
Don’t judge. Just talk! The likelihood is your teen will be so grateful to know you care, and that you’re interested in their life. (Even if they don’t quite express it that way.) “The tech talk” isn’t something we do once then move on — there will always be something new to discuss, some new problem to address.
But that’s all of parenting, right?
To be abundantly clear, I am in no way absolving Instagram (“a Facebook company!”) of responsibility; I’m outraged that they plainly hid evidence that they were exacerbating a serious problem among teens without doing everything in their power to address it. Or as one online safety advocate for children put it, “they put profit before harm.” It’s infuriating.
But I also know that social media offers so many positive aspects for kids too — it’s kept our kids connected during a global pandemic, it’s allowed them to pursue passions, to start meaningful businesses, to create and share incredible art, to advocate for causes they care about, or simply to find “their people” when they felt different from the people around them. So it’s on us to help teach our kids how to use social media smartly and safely; not just approve their app requests and never talk about it again.
In other words, if we wait for Instagram to address rampant mental health issues among teens, we’ll be sitting here waiting for a very very long time.
We have work to do, parents. As always.