Research on Instagram and teens: Summaries from the Facebook Files

In response to Facebook’s claims that The Wall Street Journal was misrepresenting Instagram’s impact on teens in the newspaper’s Facebook Files series, the WSJ published some of the primary documents journalists used in reporting. These include 6 studies about Instagram and teens that had been leaked to them by a whistleblower at Facebook. 

These internal studies from Facebook highlight the dangers of Instagram for children under 18, especially teen girls. It is clear that despite Facebook’s claims, there is no misrepresentation of research here. Below, you’ll find some of the key takeaways of Facebook’s research on teens.

Teen Girls Body Image and Social Comparison on Instagram—An Exploratory Study in the US

Read the full report here.

Objectives

This is an exploratory project with the goal to “better understand teen girls’ experience with appearance comparison on social media and how this impacted their body image and overall mental health” (p. 1). Researchers looked specifically at how social comparison on Instagram among “female” Instagram users impacted body image, how “female” Instagram users think the app affects their tendency to compare themselves to others, and to receive initial feedback on social comparison product ideas. 

Facebook conducted this research in order to:

  • “Inform product teams how to best support teens in this space;”
  • “Inform outreach teams on how we might build meaningful and impactful campaigns in this space.”

Methods

This study used:

  •  An in person focus group of fifteen 13-21 year-olds who identify as:
    • Monthly Instagram user
    • Low body image, self-esteem
    • Female
  • 5 day online diary study of 10 monthly Instagram users in the US
  • In-depth interviews of 7 of online diary study participants (30 min conversation)

KEY FINDINGS

  • Top 3 factors in body image comparisons were body standards, flawless skin, fashion. Secondary were influencer “money for nothing” lifestyles, relationships (family and romantic), travel, experiences, and talents.
  • Social comparison journeys mimic the grief cycle. “Pre-existing moods are a precursor to a downward emotional spiral.” Leads to jealousy, dysmorphia.
  • Teens who were inspired/had their confidence boosted saw content rooted in reality, accessibility, and attainable inspiration.
  • Social comparison is worse on Instagram. “It is perceived as real life but based on celebrity standards. Explore and profile stalking enables never-ending rabbit holes.
    • Celebrity content is more frequent but friends’ content is more impactful in terms of social comparison.”
    • Seeing celebrity/influencers frequently heightens the negative effect.
  • “Other apps are shielded by fun filters. TikTok is grounded in dance, fun. Snapchat is sheltered by the element of fun that keeps focus on the face and not the body and sharing with close friends. At the other extreme, VSCO is a detached dream that is 100% edited.”
  • “Aspects of Instagram exacerbate each other to create a perfect storm.” Instagram calls this the social comparison sweet spot. Includes:
    • Highlight reel norm (monetizing face + body, regular people look special)
    • Feeding the spiral (vortex of Feed, Profile, and Explore; “hate to love”)
    • Pressure to look perfect (posting ‘for the gram,’ not filter for fun (like Snap)- filter for perfection)
  • “Users’ experience of a downward spiral is exacerbated by our platform.”

Teen Mental Health Deep Dive

Read the full report here.

OBJECTIVES

A screen shot from the “Teen Mental Health Deep Dive” shows that one in five teens say that Instagram makes them feel bad about themselves.

The goal of this research was to:

  • Understand how teens talk about mental health
  • Understand “teens’ perceptions of how Instagram effects their mental health”

with the hopes that this research would inform how they could build “meaningful and impactful campaigns in this space” and inform their product creation teams as to how to better support teens.

METHODS

This study used 3 different methods:

  • A 2 hour in-person focus group (in-person qualitative) of a total of 40 teens from London, UK and Los Angeles, CA, USA; groups were “gendered.” Qualifications included:
    • Monthly Instagram user
    • Ages 13-17
    • Recruited around themes included body image, self-esteem, negative mood, depression, lonely, isolated
    • One “uncoded” baseline group also participated
  • A 1 hour follow-up video call of 8 of the focus group participants
  • An online survey of 2503 Instagram users from the US (1221) and UK (1282) who were identified as monthly Instagram users and “teens,” broadly.

KEY FINDINGS

About Instagram use

  • “Teens say Instagram had a positive impact on their mental health, but those unsatisfied with their lives are more negatively affected by the app.”
  • 13% of UK and 6% of US teens said that their desire to kill themselves started on Instagram.
  • 9% of US and 7% of UK teens said that their desire to hurt themselves started on Instagram.
  • Harm on Instagram generally falls into 3 categories: social comparison, social pressure, and negative interactions with others.
  • Research suggests products including “personalized Explore and Feed, better time spent tools, and opting out of personally triggering ad categories.”
  • Suggestions for their outreach team include “a page about feeling good about yourself, content to help teens talk about these issues, and parents education”

About general mental health

  • Teens agreed on the definition of mental health, what can be classified as mental health issues, and the language used to describe mental health issues. Specific language is gendered.
  • 82% of teens have felt at least one emotional issue fall into the category of mental health. One in five has thought about suicide or self-injury.
  • Teens feel they have to cope alone, but want help.

Appearance-based social comparison on Instagram

Read the full report here.

OBJECTIVES

This research looked at the prevalence of appearance-based social comparison on Instagram and the prevalence of general body image issues. The study considered who is most affected across 10 countries.

METHODS

Facebook conducted a survey of 50590 people in 10 countries (Australia, Brazil, France, Germany, Great Britain, India, Japan, Korea, Mexico, U.S.) in December 2021. Document does not indicate how it was delivered.

KEY FINDINGS

  • Appearance-based comparison is common on Instagram. 33% of people say they always or often or compare their appearances to others. 48% of teen girls do.
  • “It causes people to feel bad about themselves.” 26% report often or always seeing posts that make them feel worse about their bodies or appearances. 37% of teen girls do.
    • Findings show that 23% of people IG often or always see content that makes them feel better about their body as well
  • 23% of people on IG feel a lot or extreme pressure to look perfect on IG; 34% of teen girls do.
  • Comparison is worse for teens, women of all ages, and people in globally western countries (United States, UK, Australia, France).
  • “Independent of Instagram, many people feel bad about their appearances (25%, including 32% of teen girls) or weight (40%) more generally (44% of teen girls).
  • People who use custom genders (e.g. non-binary) experience higher negative social comparison on IG- 11% higher than men.

Social comparison: Topics, celebrities, Like counts, selfies

Read the full report here.

OBJECTIVES

This research sought to understand how social comparison operates across a number of different contexts, including the roles of like counts, content topics, celebrities/influencers, and filters.

METHODS

  • Survey of 100K people (March & April 2020) in Australia, U.S., Brazil, Korea, Japan, India, Germany, France, Great Britain
    • About 100K took first wave survey
    • 15 K return for second wave survey
  • Behavioral data: Time spent by surface, like counts seen, keywords in caption text, celebrities teen, use of filters (and more not listed); how it was collected was not specified

KEY FINDINGS

  • Negative social comparison on Instagram is more common in globally western countries (GB, AU, US) and more common for women in many parts of the world, but more common for men in India. It is more common among teens than non-teens, especially teen girls. Positive social comparison is more common in India and Brazil.
  • People felt better when they saw posts about giving, positive emotions and friends, pride and achievement, humor, community, strength, workout, grieving, vulnerability
  • Like counts are a key part of people’s experiences. Seeing high Like counts is associated with feeling worse.
  • FB tested “Daisy” (hiding Like counts), which reduced the negative impacts of seeing posts with many Likes. Daisy also reduced negative social comparison by about 2%.
  • People feel worse when they see more celebrities in Feed. More celebrity content is associated with more negative, less positive comparison in Feed.
    • Celebrities are defined as those with top accounts, top .1% follower counts
    • Note on the report says “may want to offer people the option to hide celebrities temporarily”
  • People seeing more celebrity consent in Stories was associated with more positive comparison and less negative comparison (opposite of Feed)
    • Attributed to “unpolished” nature  of stories; stories don’t have like count.

Mental Health Findings

Read the full report here.

OBJECTIVES

This is a November 2019 study discussing mental health issues and their relationship to Instagram. Specifically, it is a “deep dive into the reach, intensity, IG impact, expectation, self-reported usage, and support of mental health issues, split by age when relevant.”

METHODS

Survey, self-reported usage; includes 22410 users across US, JP, IN, ID, FR, TR, MX. Note: participating countries are difficult to read; limited methodology information available.

KEY FINDINGS

  • Over half of users experienced sleep issues, body image issues, sadness and financial stress (Work/school stress has the highest reach)
    • financial/family stress higher for adults 
    • Social comparison/body image issues high in both teens and adults, but teens are affected more
  • Among the most intense experiences are SSI (scale for suicide ideation), body image, anxiety, work stress, social comparison, financial stress, sadness, loneliness, family stress
    • SSI (suicide ideation) is the most intense and most negative experience across teens and adults
  •  People felt that IG should support users who were “having a hard time” 
    • Teens thought it was somewhat important for IG to support people going through a hard time 
    • Highest issues they believe IG should care about social comparison, SSI, Depression, body image 
  • “Opportunity: negative social comparison is a unique opportunity area for Instagram to tackle given its relatively higher reach, intensity and our assumed responsibility,” p.16.
  • Adults had stronger opinions about SSI, Problematic use, depression, and social comparison.
  • “Instagram is more likely to make things better than worse but, we make body image issues worse for 1 in 3 teen girls,” p. 9-10.
  • “Most wished Instagram had given them better control over what they saw (except SSI),” p. 12
  • “Social comparison has high reach, moderate intensity and we are making it worse for 1 in 4 people” p.13
  • Body image stands out for teens: 1 in 3 teen girls blame Instagram for making their body issues and problematic social media use worse.

Teens & Young Adults on IG & FB

Read the full report here.

OBJECTIVES

This March 2021 study assessed whether the company has an age-up or engagement problem with teenagers and young adults across IG and FB. They ask, across platforms:

  • Are teens joining?
  • Are teens engaging?
  • Are young adults joining?
  • Are young adults engaging?
  • What are we currently doing?

METHODS

Researchers collected user data from 5 countries, including teens 13-17, young adults 18-29, and 30+ users (US, FR, GB, JP, AU), largely focused on the US. Data includes 2020-2021 usage. Limited info on sample size.

KEY FINDINGS

Instagram:

  • ⅘ teens are fully saturated on IG (engaging with the platform) 
    • New user growth is strong 
    • “Not only are they [teens] joining, but they are retaining well. Even more so for our youngest users”
  • Losing engagement because of TikTok
    • Losing total share of time to TikTok. Estimated teens spend 2-3x more time on TikTok than IG.
  •  “Original production has dropped 13% and remains the most concerning trend.” p. 6
  • Only 14% of US teens use IG  for messaging. 
    • Losing out to iMessage and snapchat 
  • Slowdown in production for teens and non-teens, especially in the US.
  • To get more engagement they are investing heavily in reels/stories/creators to generate more value for teens

Facebook:

  • Teens engaging in FB is declining 
  • Big gap in engagement between young adults and 30+ users in the US 
  • In the US
    • Story sharing has kept young adults remain on site 
  • Main reasons for lower engagement with teens/young adults
    • Perception of FB as an older and outdated network
    • Negative content 
    • FB is seen as less relevant 
    • Perception of privacy concerns 
  • Recommended investing further into age up strategy to prevent further declines

Conclusion

In addition to exploring these studies, we highly recommend reading The Wall Street Journal’s The Facebook Files in full.

Even before this monumental research leak, Fairplay has been leading the campaign to get Facebook to cancel its planned Instagram Youth app. As a result, Facebook announced that it is “pausing” its plans to create an Instagram for kids. 

 But our work isn’t done. We’re pressuring Facebook to use this “pause” to consult with the independent child development and tech experts who understand just how harmful Instagram Youth would be for children. Most importantly, we want this pause to be permanent – the safest version of Instagram for children is no Instagram at all.

Please join leading members of Congress, regulators, and 44 state attorneys general, and hundreds of thousands of concerned parents, grandparents, caregivers, and individuals in telling Facebook to permanently scrap Instagram for kids by signing on to our petition!