When I was 15, my relationship with Instagram was an emotionally, and sometimes physically, abusive one. Like so many other girls, I came of tween-age when the platform first arrived on the screen scene, so we naively crowned ourselves queens of it.
We've all caught wind of the recent Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp outage in light of a Facebook whistleblower's claims of hidden internal research on young girls' mental health and violent political rhetoric tied to the Jan. 6 insurrection. Both are incredibly important, but I wanted to zoom in on the one finding of note – Instagram's effect on young girls, having once been one myself.
Anyone my age already understands. We were all so enticed by the concept at first, feeling as if Instagram was a magical tool to connect us with friends outside of school and see what people were up to via imagery rather than tweets. But soon enough, posting became addicting, hating on people's Instagram profiles became a pastime, and gaining followers and likes became a symbol of self-worth, not only of yourself, but others, too.
And guess what? I fell for it. It's embarrassing to admit, but my early teen years were mainly characterized by having parents chauffeur my friends and me to aesthetically pleasing spots around town to take photos of ourselves. I, and all my friends, stopped caring about the substance of our lives, falling for a continual cycle of posting, feeling bad about ourselves, and posting once again to ease the pain.
Despite how sophisticated we appeared on camera, we were so young. We didn't know ourselves beyond those photos.
Toward the end of high school, I dropped off of the platform entirely. The toxicity of the platform had run me off the road, but I watched others truck on, self-affirming through posting and hating themselves when others did.
At least teens a bit younger than me now see its effects clearly, as according to Facebooks' internal research, there's a consensus among teen girls that Instagram has increased rates of anxiety and depression. The findings are clear as day: Instagram's algorithms amplified insecurities in our most vulnerable.
I mean, really. If you think about it, what platform where people post beautiful photos of themselves will foster anything but debilitating self-hatred? Instagram was born right out of the time of Y2K's low-waisted jeans and "heroin chic" of the 90s, making aesthetic imagery of girls wearing the skinniest of skinny jeans a competitive sport.
By now, Instagram has morphed into something seemingly less toxic because our culture has become slightly less toxic. But we all know the platform itself has only tried to reverse this trend, implementing pickier algorithms, introducing stories, expanding its toxic reach on the human mind.
The issue, the reason why we can't just get off, is in Facebook's response. They've claimed that "other research" also shows that young people feel Instagram connects them to their peers and makes them feel better about their wellbeing. Right.
The connectivity that social media produces, especially in a pandemic-ridden world, is invaluable. And that's the main reason most people I know say they don't leave. But the positives and negatives sit on a wobbly balanced scale. The question is: will companies ever give us a non-market-driven social media that doesn't automatically lead to poor mental health?