Instagram and girls—Negative effects and ways to temper them

A adolescent girl staring at her phone

In September 2021, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen had a lot to say about Instagram and its negative effects on adolescent girls. Haugen shared Facebook’s own internal research with The Wall Street Journal and testified to Congress that Instagram use makes body image issues worse for 1 in 3 teen girls, among other findings. It’s important to note that Instagram and other social media apps can be detrimental to boys, too. (For more information on social media and boys, see How does social media affect body image in men? The dangers of Instagram, explained.)

Last year’s bombshell report and subsequent media coverage echoed years of peer-reviewed, scientific research on how social media harms young women’s mental health. Yet, there has been little follow-up coverage.

Given the clear and comprehensive research on social media’s negative effects combined with the alarming number of U.S. teens who use Instagram every day – 22 million – it’s critical to keep reminding people of the long-confirmed, harmful effects of social media, particularly Instagram. These negative effects, as highlighted in this 2021 Forbes article, include:

  • Body dissatisfaction, appearance anxiety, lower self-esteem and depression: A 2019 study showed that the frequency of Instagram use is linked to these mental health issues.
  • Internalized thin-ideal mindset and body surveillance: When young women follow appearance-focused posts on Instagram, they’re more likely to experience a “drive for thinness.” But following appearance-neutral accounts is not associated with any body image outcomes, according to this study.
  • Increased risk for eating disorders: In 2015 (7 years ago!), a review of a staggering 67 studies concluded that “The use of the Internet, and particularly appearance-focused social media, is associated with heightened body image and eating concerns. Developmental characteristics may make adolescents particularly vulnerable to these effects.” Today, the research is even more conclusive.
  • Increased desire for cosmetic surgery: Another 12-year-old study showed that social-media-using Dutch adolescents (boys and girls) between 11 and 18 years old expressed a desire to alter their appearance through cosmetic surgery.
  • More exposure to and engagement in self-harm behavior among vulnerable kids: Research suggests that self-harming youth are more active in online social networks than youth who do not engage in self-harm behavior. One review of nine studies found that social networking sites are used by suicidal and self-harming youth as a place to communicate with and seek support from other users. However, the research showed that “Greater time spent on social networking websites led to higher psychological distress, an unmet need for mental health support, poor self-rated mental health, and increased suicidal ideation.”

While this research is terrifying, there are steps parents can take to guide their children to healthy social media use, specifically Instagram. They include:

  • Talk to your child about the pitfalls of the app. Help them understand what you see as problematic in their feeds and what to avoid. Encourage them to notice what content affects how they feel about themselves. Help them think more critically about what they see online. By design, Instagram exploits our need for social belonging and pushes us to keep scrolling.
  • Keep lines of communication open: Kids might hesitate to share their thoughts about problematic posts if they fear you will ban social media or particular apps. So ask your child which people they follow and how they feel when they’re online in a nonjudgemental way. Use open-ended questions to get them thinking and talking.
  • Pay attention to offline behaviors: Signs of excessive peer envy, low self-esteem or depression might mean your child has issues with their social media use.
  • Discuss the addictive nature of Instagram: Psychologist Adam Alter, Ph.D., a professor of marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business, outlines three drives of “irresistible screen addiction,” including removing stopping cues, feedback and goals. To learn more, go to Think Better with Adam Alter (With Video).
  • Recognize that the way people engage on Instagram matters to mental health: The negative impact of social media is not about the raw time spent on the platform. Instead, it’s about how adolescents use it, according to University of Delaware assistant professor of psychology Sophia Choukas-Bradley, Ph.D. (See Choukas-Bradley’s articles on Psychology of Adolescence). The problematic behaviors are digital status seeking, social comparison with idealized images and posting edited selfies.
  • Model healthy behavior: You can help your child by spending less time on Instagram and other social media platforms and unfollowing people who post idealized content, and following posts unrelated to appearance.
  • Have your child spend hours away from Instagram: Be sure to make time where Instagram is out of reach. You can do this by leaving one’s phone in another room, turning off notifications or putting it on airplane mode.
  • Know research about social media is not all bad: Developmentally, peer relationships are essential for kids’ well-being. Most teens report that social media makes them feel more connected to their friends, more included and more confident. (Teens’ Social Media Habits and Experiences)

Choukas-Bradley notes that it’s important to understand how adolescents use social media more broadly “because their preferred platforms change so rapidly.” An August 2022 study, Teens, Social Media and Technology 2022 | Pew Research Center, shows that Instagram has lost traction with teens as TikTok has exploded in popularity.

If you have concerns about your child’s social media use or mental health, please reach out to your child’s primary care or mental health provider on the Welia Health team. We’re here to help you and your child.