Opinion

Instagram is toxic for teens


Published : 22 Sep 2021 09:24 PM | Updated : 23 Sep 2021 05:46 PM

It is a ‘deep dive’ — to quote Facebook’s own researchers, though not really into the unknown. But this time, the anecdotes and the murmurs are being backed by a disturbing report that not just indicts the social media giant’s brazen ride through accusations of big tech unaccountability but also — not unlike with the vaping industry — puts children in the firing line.

In ‘Facebook Files’ Wall Street Journal has made it Instagram official by investigating internal reports on how the social media giant had found- not just once, that a “sizeable” number of teenagers who were yearning for airbrushed and Photoshopped visibility through its photo sharing app were paying a cost, with their mental health.

The documents reveal how Facebook knew its photo sharing app was more harmful for teens than any other platform and yet ignored how outer beauty among the young was two-toned, attainable yet toxic.

Internal Facebook research from the last three years were part of the alarming investigations and you don’t need to reach ‘The End’ to conclude that this has horror written all over it.

It is ironical that for once what you don’t see or hear on a social media platform is making news. Facebook- valued at $1 trillion- not surprisingly has been a closed book while its photo sharing app Instagram which it bought in 2012 allowed a cancel culture to flourish, only what was getting cancelled was self- worth. The app forgot to give a teen trigger warning- if the young can use filters, so can the famous people they follow.

A very young crowd

More than 40% of Instagram users are 22 years old and younger, as per the WSJ report. Only those living under a rock will be taken aback because the legal age of 13 to join the social media platform is fooling no one, least of all Facebook.

Many teens today have multiple accounts or ‘Finsta’ that even their family members are unaware of it. Neither is there a verification process or a child protection policy in place- where there is a will only there, is a way.

Instead, children as young as nine or ten years of age have a free hand, staring anxiously at every ‘like’ they don’t get and every comment that isn’t likeable as though their mental health depends on it. WSJ reminds us that indeed it does. There are safe online spaces, but no surprises, Instagram is not it.

Although the toxicity of Instagram has an overwhelming impact on teen girls- “We make body image issues worse for one in third teen girls,” and “thirty-two per cent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse”, as per the studies, boys are also vulnerable.

WSJ reportedly accesses a file that says 14% of teen boys have experienced negativity through the app. An earlier WHO report flagged that half of all mental health disorders take place before the age of 14.

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The social media platform’s biggest curse is anonymity that allows Instagram to be anything but a level playing field. Instead of staying away from a stranger, Instagram has enabled access.

More than a few schoolgirls have admitted to me how they have been approached online by persistent strangers to pose inappropriately. “I post thirst traps- pictures that are intentionally seductive or revealing,” a 15- year- old had told me once.

Uploads of intimate videos- a form of revenge porn have also made their way to the app as part of the oversexualized content that has no filter. 18+ rating for Facebook is so last century, especially when it conflicts with commercial interests.

Cross check and XCheck

Despite Facebook’s assertions to the contrary, some people on the platform are more equal than others. The program called “cross check” or “XCheck” was intended to check on VIP accounts but as per the journal, allowed them to get away with violent incitements and political deception.

But the latest newsbreak is a truth so powerful that by hiding what it knows and presenting things as we should know, Zuckerberg has once again redefined boundaries of misinformation.

The reality is that the social media company makes the lives of its users transparent while resisting all attempts at its own transparency. Facebook continues to shirk from making its studies public while accusing WSJ of ‘deliberate mischaracterization.’ Some would call it whataboutery.

But the stakes are higher when a vulnerable section of the population believes only in the perfection of being — and if not popular is impetuous enough to self-harm, have eating disorders or suicidal thoughts.

This report is a wake- up call even for Indian parents. A 2019 study showed that 66 million Indian children in the age group of five to eleven years, access the internet on their family devices. Another report says even for Indian teens, the gram came first.

Children’s mental health

The onus is on families to at least make this a drawing room conversation instead of dismissing it as a harmless toy because Mark Zuckerberg whose recent career path has been confrontational and controversial has already told a Congressional hearing earlier that there was no conclusive evidence to link children’s mental health with the impact of social media platforms.

The documents that WSJ accessed shows that Zuckerberg resisted changes the team wanted to make for fear of decreased engagements and changes in the algorithm to encourage more users only led to ‘angrier users.’

Zuckerberg’s belligerence can also be seen in how he has no plans for now to back down on launching an Instagram app for children below the age of 13- an age group completely out of their depth in cyber world.

What hope do they have when older girls obsessed with how they look on the app see their self-esteem crushed like coffee beans in Colombia. Even beauty pageants give a token nod to inner beauty, our children know the peers are watching and what the followers see is what they will get.

Facebook has unfortunately made the teens believe that they have got this. That is perhaps the biggest harm it has done.


Jyotsna Mohan is the author of the investigative book 'Stoned, Shamed, Depressed'.

Source: Gulf News

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