by Larry Magid
This post first appeared in the Mercury News
Listen to “Instagram and teen mental health” on Spreaker.
Larry Magid talks with experts on this 1-minute CBS News ConnectSafely Report
A recent Wall Street Journal article revealed internal Facebook documents proclaiming that “Instagram is toxic for teen girls.” The article quoted documents from Facebook researchers acknowledging “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,” and “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression.” Some readers of this article consider it to be an exposé but—as someone who has worked closely with Instagram and Facebook safety officials for years—none of it surprised me. While Facebook didn’t make this piece of research public, I’ve had several on-the-record conversations with Facebook safety officials who acknowledge that their products can have unintended consequences.
In February, I conducted a video interview with Instagram head of safety Vaishnavi J who acknowledged, “There is a lot of pressure around online interactions.” She added, “there are a lot of wonderful things about online interactions, but there is certainly a lot of pressure as well.” Instagram has partnered with the Jed Foundation on a website, pressuretobeperfect.jedfoundation.org, that provides a lot of good advice, including “sometimes online interactions can take an emotional toll—especially if you fall into the habit of negatively comparing yourself with others. Being mindful of your emotions and being able to put them into context can help.”
‘Compare and despair’
I’m grateful to the Wall Street Journal for shedding light on some of the ways social media can contribute to a sense of inadequacy and other mental health issues. But what the article didn’t include is tips on how parents and teens can deal with these issues for a healthier online experience. To that end, I spoke with two experts. Dr. Tracy Bennett is a clinical psychologist and founder of getkidsinternetsafe.com, and Dr. Michael Rich is a pediatrician and director of the Boston Children’s Hospital Digital Wellness Lab.
Bennett calls this phenomenon “compare and despair.” She said that “children now are inundated by images, many that are changed through style, through makeup, through changing the photo image, and through plastic surgery, making it impossible to really live up to those standards.” Some kids, including boys, suffer “from debilitating eating disorders,” along with anxiety and depression. On her website and in her practice, she teaches “social media readiness,” including the “the traps of screentime.” Her goal is to help young people “reason through what’s reasonable to expect and what isn’t” and to employ psychological wellness tools including “mindfulness and imagery practices, and how to develop a well-balanced life off-screen and on-screen.”
I asked Bennett what she tells young patients who are feeling inadequate about their looks. “We all wake up without makeup on, not looking our best,” she said. “I would also help her develop those parts of herself other than looks that make us valuable to society.” She said that it’s also important to remind young people that “if you’re comparing yourself to an image that’s not even possible in real life, or maybe a supermodel, that’s one in 3 million, you’re never going to measure up. So, you can’t put all your eggs in that basket.”
It’s how you use social media
Pediatrician Michael Rich commented that the problem is “not social media per se but how they use it and what they use it for.” Some teens, he said, “are using social media to market themselves to the world. They’re using it the same way that companies are,” and this is all happening at a time when kids are intensely aware of their bodies, which are changing in confusing ways, and they’re feeling new feelings that they’ve never felt before, and “they’re intensely self-aware.”
He advises his patients to “take a pause to lower the hyperstimulation” and “to reflect on what, what is going on for them? Are they communicating with people? Are they showing off for people? Are they competing with people?” and to remind teens that “it’s the real connections that matter.” He said that he often urges youth “to use their online communications in a mindful and purposeful and intentional way, and that they remain authentic to themselves.”
As the Wall Street Journal article pointed out, not all youth have negative experiences. Dr. Rich said he’s reviewed research that found that, in many cases, “young people or adolescents of color, do not have that same social comparison issue, and that same issue of depression and anxiety. They tend to use social media more, to bind together in solidarity, to be activists to connect on their similarities, rather than compare on their differences.”
I haven’t reviewed that research on ethnic differences, but studies show that intentionality can lead to safer and healthier experiences. Using social media to interact around shared interests—be they sports, politics, videogames, or whatever, often lead to more meaningful interaction than simply scrolling through posts or looking at random images.
How parents can help
Rich, Bennett, and almost every other expert I’ve consulted recommend that parents engage in regular non-threatening conversations with their teens about how social media use impacts them. Ask them how they feel when they go online and be a listener, not a lecturer. Work with them to help them better understand and cope with how they are feeling. If you think your teen needs additional help, consult an expert, be it a psychologist, pediatrician, or school counselor. Don’t overreact by taking away their phone or their online access but help them develop the skills and life balance they need to cope in today’s world. If you or someone close to you is in crisis, consider contacting the Crisis Text Line at crisistextline.org or texting Home to 741741.
Finally, know that today’s kids are far from clueless. As Bennett said, “this generation is starting to get it, which is really cool. Compared with our generation, we’re starting to see different values in looks. Many of them are starting to value other things rather than just this one impossible measure.” She’s right. I can’t speak for all young people, but I’ve been around many who fully understand that there are many definitions of beauty, including the beauty that comes from being a balanced, thoughtful, and kind person.
Disclosure: Larry Magid is CEO of ConnectSafely, a non-profit internet safety organization that receives financial support from Facebook and other companies