How to protect your teen on Instagram

Facebook knows Instagram is toxic for teen girls, documents show

Extensive internal surveys and research at Facebook shows that the company knows how Instagram can have a negative mental health impact on teen girls, according to a Wall Street Journal report published on Tuesday.

According to the report: "For the past three years, Facebook has been conducting studies into how its photo-sharing app affects its millions of young users. Repeatedly, the company’s researchers found that Instagram is harmful for a sizable percentage of them, most notably teenage girls.

“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.”


“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."

The way the product is designed lends itself to becoming a tool for social comparison, the researchers found. Teens compare themselves to each other and social influencers and end up unhappy with their own lives and bodies.

But the news isn't all bad. The research also found that: "For most teenagers, the effects of 'negative social comparison' are manageable and can be outweighed by the app's utility as a fun way for users to express themselves and connect with friends."

Once again, parents play a crucial role here. It's important to inculcate intrinsic motivations in our kids so that they're confident in their self-worth and aren't constantly comparing themselves to other people -- and worse -- doctored images online and letting them set the bar for teens' sense of self-worth, say psychologists.

The British industry trade group Internet Matters has this useful guide for parents and teens on how to manage teens' Instagram experience. Among their advice: "Make connections, not comparisons."

The U.S. non-profit Common Sense Media also has this exhaustive "Parents' Ultimate Guide to Instagram" primer -- find out what a "Rinsta" and a "Finsta" are, for example.

And while we're on the subject of bodies, mental health, and social comparison, Common Sense Media has also published these easy-to-digest online videos and posts on the issue for parents of both girls and boys.

In addition, eating disorders are not uncommon among teens. The Mayo Clinic has published a list of symptoms to look for if you're worried about your child. Parents of kids with eating disorders have also said that they only discovered their kids' problems by being in touch with their friend networks. Sometimes kids hide their behavior from their parents, and their friends are the only ones who see any "abnormal" or worrying behavior at school.

Generally, Common Sense Media suggests:

  1. Focus on health. Remind your kids that there's no one "right" body type, but that staying healthy is the goal.
  2. Be mindful about what you say at home about others. Families can have just as much of an influence on kids as media
  3. Expose the myths. Remind them that a lot of the images on Instagram and elsewhere don't reflect people's everyday lives and most of them are probably staged. "Point out that the sports celebrities they admire have teams of people helping them to work out, feeding them special meals, and, in some cases, surgically altering them," advises Common Sense Media's Senior Editor Caroline Knorr.
  4. For parents of boys, you could point out how unrealistic many media portrayals of women are -- especially in video games. 
  5. Try to stay engaged with what your kids are doing and seeing online. (In our opinion, they won't appreciate you spying on them online, but you could discuss what they're seeing and doing and discuss it all during dinner.)

The bottom line is that teens are constantly searching for self-identity and often use the Internet as a place to evaluate their places in the world. It's our job as parents to make sure that that quest is a safe and healthy one and, as they say, make sure that our children get a "reality check" on a consistent basis.

One Response to “How to protect your teen on Instagram

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