It has been clear for a while now that social media platforms can have negative effects on young people, particularly young women and girls.
Facebook subsidiary Instagram has particular appeal among young people, with more than 40% of users under 22-years-old, and more than 22 million teenagers using Instagram daily in the US alone.
The Australian statistics are similar, with women and girls under 24 making up more than 20% of users.
With such a young audience, it is crucial that everything possible is done to make Instagram a safe place for users, and publicly, that has been the position of Facebook.
“The research that we’ve seen is that using social apps to connect with other people can have positive mental-health benefits,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg said earlier this year.
Not long after, head of Instagram Adam Mosseri, told reporters that research he had seen suggests the site’s effects on teen well-being is likely “quite small”.
However, a recent article posted in the Wall Street Journal found that internal research showed Facebook is completely aware of the damaging effects of Instagram on teen girls.
The company documents show that “thirty-two per cent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse”, and that “comparisons on Instagram can change how young women view and describe themselves”.
The WSJ article found that the research also looked at the connections between Instagram and suicidal behaviours.
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.
“Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression,” said another slide. “This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.”
Among teens who reported suicidal thoughts, 13% of British users and 6% of American users traced the desire to kill themselves to Instagram, one presentation showed.
The research showed that the company is aware not only of the impact on young women and girls, but also of many other issues. As the WSJ reports, they are making “minimal effort” to combat them.
The Instagram documents form part of a trove of internal communications reviewed by the Journal, on areas including teen mental health, political discourse, and human trafficking.
They offer an unparalleled picture of how Facebook is acutely aware that the products and systems central to its business success routinely fail.
The documents also show that Facebook has made minimal efforts to address these issues and plays them down in public.
Social media and tech giants like Facebook have a moral responsibility to do whatever they can to protect users on their platforms.
More needs to be done, both by the providers and governments to reduce the harmful impact the platforms have. Providing support and creating awareness of these issues among parents, schools and young people themselves, would be a good start.
It is not good enough that companies, aware of the damage they are doing, continue to cause harm to society’s most vulnerable.