On average, 22 million teens log into Instagram each day to scroll through their feeds, check out the latest from their celebrity idols (yes, we see you Selena Gomez), or engage with their friends. But, there is a darker side to Instagram, with research suggesting the social network is contributing to poor mental health and self-esteem issues in teenage girls.
A social network built around the camera phone revolution, Instagram has evolved significantly since its launch in 2010. Since being sold to Facebook in 2012, the app has seen a huge increase in users, particularly celebrities and leading public figures. This growth boom solidified the platform as the channel of dreams, creating a new host of opportunities for models and influencers. But multiple studies indicate the site is fostering unrealistic standards of beauty and popularity amongst young people.
Current owner Facebook conducted a study into the platform’s influence on mental health and body image, specifically amongst young women. Their research found that a staggering 1 in 3 girls reported feeling worse about their bodies after logging onto the app. In a separate report led by YoungMinds and the Royal Society for Public Health, Instagram was singled out as the network having “the most negative impact on young people’s mental health and wellbeing.”
Any Instagram user knows that before uploading a photo to your feed or story, you are inundated with different filters to change the appearance of your photo. Many of these filters lure us with “beautifying” options, such as smoothing and lightening your skin tone or changing the colour of your eyes, which help to perpetuate western ideals of beauty. By their very existence, these filters instil the idea that young people are not good enough as they are. In fact, a study conducted by Dove’s Self-Esteem research project found that 85% of girls had already edited or applied a filter to their photos by the age of 13! The number of enquiries to cosmetic surgeons from teenagers has also risen, with an estimated 41,000 procedures carried out on under 18s in 2020. Many of these are young women seeking to achieve the ideal “Instagram Face” – high cheekbones, cat-like eyes and full lips – that originated on the social network.
Some of the biggest stars of Instagram are the Kardashians. With millions of followers across the world, the Kardashian family are role models to many young women, and yet Kim Kardashian has previously been called out for releasing poorly photoshopped images and videos that suggest her body is a different shape than it really is. In 2018, Kim was labelled a “toxic influence” by actress and body positivity activist Jameela Jamil for endorsing a diet lollipop on her Instagram account. Taking to Twitter, Jameela said: “Maybe don’t take appetite suppressors and eat enough to fuel your brain and work hard and be successful.” Seeing their favourite celebrities endorse weight loss products and uphold unrealistic beauty standards in their images no doubt has an impact on the mental health of young girls.
Instagram claims they are working on the issues highlighted in their internal research. Suggested changes include introducing an option to hide “like” counts on photos and signposting to support for people who are struggling with their mental health.
At Social Change, we don’t feel this goes far enough, especially given the stark statistics highlighted in Instagram’s own research - in the report, 13% of Instagram users in the UK traced their suicidal thoughts back to the app. Fortunately, the body positivity movement is fighting back. Led by celebs and influencers such as pop star Lizzo, “plus-size” models Ashley Graham and Tess Holiday, and style blogger and eating disorder activist Shira Rose, #BodyPositive currently has over 16 million posts on Instagram. Health and fitness influencers are also getting involved, such as ‘annaarcherfitness.’ The Gymshark athlete uses Instagram to share images of her posed and unposed body, to remind her followers that even the most athletic people don’t look the way they appear online all the time.
To promote self-esteem and healthy minds in young people, we need to see more realness on Instagram. They need to see a range of body types on their screens, rather than being bombarded by filters and FaceTune. Whether from within the app or a cultural overhaul, it is clear to see that something needs to change to protect the mental health of young people as they navigate the complicated world of social media.
We're passionate about promoting positive mental health amongst children, teens and young people - check out our #JustTalk project with Herfordshire County Council, dedicated to helping young people open up about their mental health.