Ask an Expert: Should Teen Girls Stop Using Instagram?

Teen girl scrolling on phone in class.

Peter Muller / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Facebook's own researchers know that Instagram has consequences for mental health, especially for teenage girls, but has not clearly addressed this in public.
  • Clinicians see the consequences play out in their clients, especially through social comparison, eating disorders, and depression.
  • Certain changes, such as limiting certain features, consulting mental health practitioners, and implementing permanent mental health initiatives, can alleviate some of the issues.

A recent investigation from The Wall Street Journal found that for the past three years, Facebook has been conducting studies on how Instagram affects its millions of young users. According to its own research, the media giant found the app to be harmful to a sizable percentage of them, most notably teenage girls.

Since before it bought Instagram in 2012, Facebook has been embroiled in controversy. But perhaps the most consequential one of all has been its mental health impact on users. According to Instagram's own researchers, about a third of all teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.

The researchers shared their findings in March 2020 with top Facebook executives, including CEO Mark Zuckerberg. In their presentation of the data, they noted that certain features of the app, including the encouragement to share only the "best" moments, pressure to look "perfect," and addictive interface riddled with likes and flashy content, can "exacerbate each other to create a perfect storm." The storm, they added, can lead users, especially when younger and more impressionable, toward an unhealthy sense of self, eating disorders, and depression.

A year later, at a March 2021 congressional hearing, Zuckerberg did not directly address these findings. Instead, when asked about children and mental health, he said that "using social apps to connect with other people can have positive mental-health benefits."

For regular users of the photo and video sharing app, the harm to mental health may not be a surprise. The more shocking aspect of it all, Jaynay C. Johnson, LMFT, a teen therapist based in Philadelphia and founder of Teen Talk, tells Verywell is that Facebook hasn't taken accountability for it.

In order to help people heal and reduce risk, she says, transparency from media giants is the first step.

Verywell spoke with Johnson to learn more about the impact of social media on her clients, as well as how she helps teens manage their use. 

Verywell: What mental health issues caused by social media are you seeing among your clients, especially in teen girls?

Johnson: One of the main things is around beauty, body image, body type, and lifestyle. We see a lot of girls who have eating disorder issues because they see people online and compare themselves. That idea of comparison is very real on Instagram. Even TikTok has its own underbelly.

Generally, it's a very heavy feeling of depression. Feelings of, "I'm never good enough. I don't look good enough." A lot of teens are losing the essence of being able to communicate and deal with conflict in person. Everything goes online, which creates its own disaster. Now everyone else gets to be involved who was not involved before, and they get to comment.

Verywell: How are you tailoring treatment to address issues related to social media and Instagram in particular?

Johnson: I'm an inclusive type of therapist, meaning I'm not going to just say that we do away with social media. Social media is here to stay, so I'm more or less trying to help teens understand how they're triggered online. Then I help them work through some of those root causes. Sometimes it's family-related or comes from feeling like they can't make friends in real life. Other times they have good friends, but then they get bombarded with all of the other things.

I kind of do split treatment where I work practically on how to maintain a better social media presence. That looks like, "Okay, let's audit your page. Who are you actually following? What kind of content do you want to see?" For example, if you like dogs, let's follow more dog pages. I help them actively curate their page with more content that they enjoy, more content that makes them smile, and content that doesn't make them feel like they're comparing themselves.

I also talk to them about only following people that they know, and teach them how to determine when it's time to unfollow or block someone. That way, when they're on Instagram, they feel confident in their own ability to manage their page. But, of course, that takes a lot of time and work, because what they're going through outside of Instagram could also lead to the behaviors they have on Instagram.

Just banning social media doesn't teach teenagers anything. I'm big on them having that education so that they can be emotionally responsible for themselves in this world. They can get information from anywhere at any time now, so they have to filter choices within themselves. We live in a world with way more risk factors, so it is pertinent that the teenager understands how to make a good decision, as well as what their pitfalls could be and how to manage them. For me, it's just about making sure that they have the right information to make the best choices.

Jaynay C. Johnson, LMFT

Just banning social media doesn't teach teenagers anything.

— Jaynay C. Johnson, LMFT

Verywell: You mentioned the perils of comparison, and only following people that you know. Talk to us a little bit more about that.

Johnson: When you are in an environment with people you know personally, and you have a goal to reach a level that they reached, then you can actually build a healthy relationship with them around those kinds of goals. You may have similarities to this person, too— they're in your ecosystem somehow, whether it's school, your neighborhood, your church. So you can also connect more authentically. And more likely than not, you will also feel that what they have could also be attainable for you.

Versus when we're getting online, you may have nothing in common with the influencer. Yet, you're comparing yourself and now you're striving for something that may not be within your reach, culturally or monetarily. It does more harm more than good, especially for the teen brain, which is trying to really think about their identity. Their identity could be more cemented and cultivated in an environment around people who have similar qualities or are in their ecosystem.

Verywell: How do you interact with parents, and what advice do you give them?

Johnson: In my interaction with parents at my private practice, I always check in about how their child is doing at home. I try to check in at least once a week or biweekly to see how the teen is doing, and if they noticed any changes in their behavior, specifically around social media.

I also talk to the parents about how they are monitoring the usage, as well as how they are being present and active with their teen around it. I find that parents struggle with their teen needing more oversight because, in our world, we've decided that a teenager is a mini adult. And they're not, although they look it. They're still children and still need guidance.

I talk to parents about how they are going to fill in the gap. Because parents will say, "I can see the phone or social media is an issue, so I'm just taking the phone." But they do not cultivate their child's creativity or their social skills in any other way. That often leads a child to feel lonely and depressed. If they're already struggling with that, it could lead to self-harm, a suicide attempt, and hospitalization.

I'm not being dramatic when I say that taking the phone is everything, especially if they're an only child. If you take their phones, but nothing changes in the family dynamic, then those feelings start to set in. The teen is worried about what people are saying about them. They're worried about what they're missing because then they can't go to school tomorrow and be a part of the conversation if something big happens on social media. Those moments are good opportunities for parents to help the child transition to using social media less. They could say, "Hey, let's have a movie night," or "let's go to a bookstore or take a walk."

Verywell:  Facebook's response to all this might be something like "it's not our fault, these children were already vulnerable to developing something like this." How would you respond if you could speak directly to these media companies?

Johnson: I feel a little pessimistic here because the companies know what they're doing. They know that teenagers are impressionable and they're using that.

But if I were to look at this and try to be optimistic, I would love to see social media platforms have more health and wellness initiatives that are forward-facing. I think what often happens is they have these initiatives, but they're on the back burner. They run just for mental health awareness week or month, but they're not constant. There should be more health and wellness initiatives that are a part of the platform, even if they just encourage people to take a break.

Putting the onus on the parent and the teen is unfair because companies know what they're doing. Facebook should be honest about its findings because it will validate the millions of people who already know that Instagram is an issue. By validating someone, now we can talk about options, treatment, or how to pivot.

That doesn't mean we have to do away with the whole platform but may mean we have to adjust and change some things. I would love to see them create a separate type of Instagram for younger users. Teenagers' feeds should have chronological posts with only people they know. They also don't need explore pages or all of the ads.

Therapists are outnumbered in terms of people needing support because there are all of these programs and systems being created, all of these policies that are causing harm. So as a family therapist, I'm trying to think of this on a larger level. How can we handle this and help people be healthier so that everyone doesn't feel the need to have a therapist?

1 Source
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  1. The Wall Street Journal. Facebook Knows Instagram Is Toxic for Teen Girls, Company Documents Show.

By Sarah Simon
Sarah Simon is a bilingual multimedia journalist with a degree in psychology. She has previously written for publications including The Daily Beast and Rantt Media.