The Truth About How Instagram Affects Teen Girls’ Body Image

You can’t blame social media for everything.,

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I spent a few nights last week poring over the trove of files that Facebook’s whistleblower, Frances Haugen, released to The Wall Street Journal about the impact of Instagram on teen girls. My initial gut response was: I need to keep my two young daughters away from social media until they’re 40. Statistics like “32 percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse,” along with a raft of articles calling Instagram “toxic” and a “cesspool” for teen girls, are panic-inducing.

But then I took a step back and remembered being a teenage girl myself. I did not feel great about my body. I frequently compared myself to my friends, and I spent many hours a day parked in front of the television watching MTV, staring at the impossibly chiseled abs of every member of TLC. My parents tried to ban MTV when I was 12, in part because of the overly sexualized images of women, but I just watched it when they weren’t around.

So I know from experience that keeping my kids off social media forever isn’t realistic, and I also wonder: How do we know for sure that social media is worse for teen girls than traditional media was for previous generations?

What the Research Says

The answer isn’t as straightforward as statistics from Facebook’s internal documents and the subsequent reporting might suggest. First, as Anya Kamenetz, an NPR reporter and the author of “The Art of Screen Time,” pointed out: Facebook’s research had a small sample size and was not peer-reviewed. It’s also worth noting that teenagers may struggle more with depression and anxiety in this moment because, like every other demographic, we’re all still living in a pandemic.

Second, after looking at the academic literature about media and body image from before and after social media’s existence, it seems like unattainable visions of women’s bodies have long had a negative effect on adolescent girls, who are already at a highly vulnerable developmental moment as their bodies change. There are ways that social media might heighten this vulnerable moment, but its impact is not clear-cut.

In 2009, the year before Instagram launched, a review of the literature on mass media and body image in young women found that TV and magazines were probably the “principal source” of information about the “thin beauty ideal” and how to get it, and that repeated exposure to such media can be a risk factor for body dissatisfaction, disordered eating and concerns over weight. A longitudinal, racially diverse study of 2,516 teens that ran from the late ’90s to the early aughts found that teen girls were much more dissatisfied with their bodies than teenage boys were, and that lower levels of body satisfaction were linked to higher levels of dieting and disordered eating.

Do those findings differ from what we know about social media and its impact on body image?

The research quite consistently finds that image-based platforms like Instagram have a “small link to negative body image,” said Jasmine Fardouly, a social psychologist and research fellow at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. The research on non-image based platforms, like Facebook, is a little bit more mixed, she said.

And there is concern among experts, like Dr. Jenny Radesky, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan Medical School who studies digital technology use in families, that what makes a platform like Instagram particularly insidious for some teens is the extra layer of validation they observe through the likes, comments and shares of their peers. “If information is delivered to you within a trusted social network, it may be something the user accepts, believes or trusts more readily,” Dr. Radesky said.

However, even the research that finds spending time on social media is associated with greater instances of disordered eating behavior and negative feelings about body image is careful to note, causality cannot be determined: In other words, these studies cannot tease out whether girls who are inclined toward eating issues, for a variety of reasons, spend more time on social media, or whether the social media causes the issues.

“Just being on Instagram isn’t harmful, it’s how you use it,” Dr. Fardouly said. When we look only at the potential negative effects of social media on teenagers, we’re also ignoring the ways it can have a good influence. Dr. Fardouly has done studies showing that body-positive content depicting a range of shapes and sizes and parodies of thin-ideal content may boost young women’s moods — though the research is preliminary.

How Parents Can Help Girls Push Back

As individuals, we can’t control what social media giants like Instagram blast into the ether, or how their algorithms work. But as parents we can mitigate the effects of images that potentially make our kids feel worse about themselves. First, we need to control the entry point to social media, Dr. Radesky said. If your child is under 13, they’re not supposed to be starting their own accounts, because collecting data on children is against U.S. privacy laws.

If your kids are interested in social media because it allows them to connect with other kids while we’re still in a pandemic, you can encourage them to use apps like iMessage or FaceTime, which allow them to chat without “likes or social comparison or posting out to followers.” Those tools also align better with the kind of socializing they’re doing in person, Dr. Radesky said. If they’re interested in something like TikTok, you can explore that app with them, monitoring what they’re seeing, she said.

Starting your kids off with social media literacy at a young age is an essential tool, said Dr. Yolanda N. Evans, an associate professor at the University of Washington Department of Pediatrics who specializes in adolescent medicine. For example, she said that if you observe your kid looking at an ultra-manicured photo of a friend, you can say something like: “‘I noticed that picture of so-and-so looks professional, how many takes do you think they took to get it?’ It helps them think critically about what they’re seeing.”

If your kids are older and already on social media, you can encourage them to curate their feeds so that they’re not just getting #fitspo and extremely thin bodies. And try to model good tech hygiene yourself, Dr. Evans said, whether it’s a family rule that there are no phones at dinner or after 9 p.m. She recommends this American Academy of Pediatrics interactive media plan, which you can customize for your own family’s needs.

I have no illusions that my girls will always feel good about their bodies. I am certainly not eager for them to be on social media, particularly from a data privacy perspective. But I am glad that I can arm them now, while they’re still listening, with the weapons to push back against the thin ideal wherever they encounter it.

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