News about the impact of social media, particularly Instagram, on the mental health of young people has recently made headlines. But what does it really mean, and how does it impact our work afterschool? Read on for a summary of the news and some resources from BGCA and our partners that you can use right now.
What Made the News?
About a month ago, former Facebook Inc. employee Frances Haugen leaked internal communications and research including documents that showed the company, which owns the apps Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram among others, was aware of risks that their sites pose to the mental health of children and teens. Also included in the documents are information about how the sites promote political division and how the algorithms amplify misinformation. Haugen then testified about the information in the documents to Congress on October 5, 2021, asking for lawmakers to begin regulating Facebook.
Much of the information focused specifically on the effects of Instagram on young women. In a thorough investigation of the documents, The Wall Street Journal found a March 2020 slide presentation posted to Facebook’s internal message board which read that “Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse … Comparisons on Instagram can change how young women view and describe themselves.” Other findings include that
- More than 40% of Instagram’s users are 22 years old and younger, with about 22 million teens logging onto the site each day.
- Expanding the base of younger users is vital to the companies’ growth.
- Teens who struggle with mental health say that Instagram makes it worse, but that they are compelled to spend time on the app for fear of missing out on cultural and social trends.
- The features that Instagram identifies as the most harmful to teens appear to be at the platform’s core, such as the pressure to look perfect, only to share the best moments, and the internal algorithms that govern the Explore page sending users to increasingly harmful content.
- Social comparisons are worse on Instagram than other popular social media sites with teens, such as TikTok and Snapchat.
Facebook disagrees with the characterization of the findings, claiming that their goal is to provide “meaningful social interactions” and that while some users experience these negative outcomes, many teens reported feeling better about their anxiety and depression after using Instagram. Other researchers claim that reliance solely on self-reporting has its limits, and more objective research shows much smaller connections between use of the platforms and mental health.
What Can We Do?
Boys & Girls Clubs of America and long-time partner Dove have teamed up to provide parents, educators and youth group leaders with the programs and tools necessary to have critical conversations and model behavior that can change girls’ lives. Teens are inundated daily by digitally-manipulated images. For instance, more than 69% of U.S. teens use Snapchat, a multi-media instant photo messaging app known for its image filters. Instagram, Facebook and Twitter also offer various forms of photo enhancements. And, there are hundreds of photo editing apps, like Facetune and Picsart, that take these editing capabilities even further. It’s no surprise that 80% of girls say they’ve downloaded a filter or used an app to change the way they look in photos by the time they’re 13 years old.
One of the many problems with image filters is that young people scrolling through their social feeds often don’t know they’re being used, mistaking enhancements and airbrushing as reality. A 2017 study in the journal Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications found that subjects only correctly identified manipulated images 60% to 65% of the time. The pervasiveness of digitally-altered images is now having a profound impact on girls’ expectations and understanding of societal beauty standards and how they see themselves.
The time is now to take action to help girls overcome threats to their self-confidence fueled by digitally-distorted and unrealistic images they see on social media and to see all the beauty and potential inside themselves. But where do we start to combat negative influences that seem to be everywhere? Here are three things you can do now:
We’ve all heard the saying “be the change we wish to see in the world.” If we want our girls to embrace their strengths and move through the world with confidence, we have to show them how. The Confidence Kit provides talking points and suggestions for identifying teaching moments when you have the opportunity to truly model self-care and confidence. It is available in
Have “The Selfie Talk”
Whether we like it or not, social media has become part of our daily lives. Young people are using social media to connect, create and play, but it’s important to speak to the young person in your life about the aspects of social media that can impact their self-confidence, like the digitally-distorted and unrealistic images they see while scrolling their feed. The Dove Self-Esteem Project created “The Selfie Talk,” which is a guide to facilitate a conversation with a young person in your life to help make social media a more positive place. Found in The Confidence Kit toolkit, “The Selfie Talk” includes tips like reminding young people that what you see on social media isn’t reality, that you can hide or unfollow accounts that don’t make you feel great, and that you can always take a “digital detox” and log out of your accounts if social media gets to be too overwhelming.
Curb Negative Self-Talk
It’s easy to make disparaging remarks about our own bodies and not even realize we’re doing it. Voicing dissatisfaction with the number on our bathroom scale or making comparisons to our favorite celebrity seem harmless when directed at ourselves, but we risk imprinting our girls with that same pattern of self-criticism and insecurity from an early age. Find advice to break this habit yourself and replace it with one that builds girls (and ourselves) up in the Confidence Kit.
Girls need to know that their self-worth is about so much more than their physical appearance. Helping girls identify what makes them unique and cultivate pride in their strengths — outside of how they look — is how we lay the groundwork for lifelong confidence. It’s also how they learn to appreciate others for more than just what’s on the surface. Download your Confidence Kit now, and find more resources from the Dove Self-Esteem Project to guide girls in your life from focused on selfies to full of self-confidence.
Learn more about these issues here on the ClubX Blog, including the impact of social media, how to talk about mental health with youth, and other issues affecting teens specifically. Boys & Girls Club staff can access programs such as SMART Moves: Emotional Wellness and SMART Girls and others on BGCA.net.
Portions of this post adapted from “Digital Distortion: How Filters are Changing the Way Girls See Themselves” on BGCA.org.