by Izzy MacFarlane //
As social media has become more prevalent in our society, there has been a corresponding increase in mental health issues, specifically that of body image affecting primarily young girls. All different forms of social media have an impact on mental health. However, it has been revealed that Instagram is the main perpetrator.
A few weeks ago, Frances Haughen, who worked as a product manager for Facebook, spoke out against this problem. She revealed findings of Facebook that showed that Instagram, a platform that Facebook owns, harms teenage girls’ mental health and well-being. Haughen exemplified immense courage and strength in revealing these discoveries. As a whistleblower, you expose information of your place of work that you feel is illegal, fraudulent, or unsafe. By doing so, you are turning your back on your organization. This type of act can have very harmful repercussions for the whistleblower, as you are potentially labeling yourself as “untrustworthy” or “a backstabber.” Because of these risks, it is clear that Haughen felt strongly enough about what she found and how pressing of an issue this truly is. She spoke out and put herself in a vulnerable position.
The Instagram Issue
While working at Facebook, Haugen grew immensely frustrated by the company’s primary concerns of growth and money over the health and wellbeing of its users. She noted in an interview with 60 minutes that there were “conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook, and Facebook over and over again [chooses] to optimize for its own interests, like making more money.” Because of this, Haugen investigated internal documents and the data she found was startling.
According to CNN, Facebook found that 13.5% of teenage girls say that Instagram spurs suicidal thoughts, while 17% of them say that Instagram makes eating disorders worse. These numbers are definitely a cause for concern, but what is even more disturbing is that these are Facebook’s own findings, which reveal that they have been aware of the issue at hand but refuse to take it seriously. Moreover, the research states that as these girls begin to consume this type of harmful content, it, in turn, makes them use the app more. They are in a “feedback cycle”, as Haughen phrases it, where they end up hating their bodies more and more. This is not a random occurrence, however.
Instagram, as a matter of fact, uses algorithms that showcase harmful accounts to young girls that express an interest in dieting. “I want to be thin,” “I want to be perfect,” and “Eternally starved” are just a few examples of Instagram accounts that these algorithms promote. This is incredibly harmful since confirmation bias is very influential. If young girls are already struggling with eating disorder-type thoughts, these accounts being promoted to them act as validation for these ideas, making it seem normal to have these types of thoughts and feel this way.
An Apathetic Response
If the findings themselves weren’t disappointing and saddening enough, Facebook’s response to them was even more disheartening. After Haughen revealed the unfortunate reality of Facebook concentrating on profit over people, Mark Zuckerberg came out with a statement in response. He pushed back against this idea by saying that “at the heart of these accusations is the idea that we prioritize profit over safety and well-being. That’s just not true.” This is clearly inaccurate, as the documents that Haughen disclosed exemplify Facebook’s lack of concern for the harmful effects of these Instagram accounts. Along with this, Facebook sent out a blog post that stated, “Protecting our community is more important than maximizing our profits. It is not accurate that leaked internal research demonstrates Instagram is ‘toxic’ for teen girls.”
This is clearly a fallacy as the numbers show it all; Facebook has the data that shows how many young girls this affects and has done nothing to combat it. It is also necessary to point out that Mark Zuckerberg, the owner of Facebook, is a cis-man who has never understood, and never will understand, the magnitude of these issues and how his actions have affected girls for the rest of their lives.
Facebook will not admit that there is a problem, despite the clear evidence that was unearthed, and they will not take any responsibility for it. Facebook has the duty to protect the lives of its community, which they say is their number one priority. However, their actions do not align with this sentiment.
Mental Health and the lack of awareness or urgency to do anything to help it has been and continues to be a vast problem in our society. This reveals the sad reality we live in where profit is constantly being placed above the happiness and health of the community. Haughen’s courage to speak out against how Facebook contributes to this problem is a start for people to begin taking the issue seriously. But we still have a ways to go in terms of prioritizing mental health in our society.