Is Facebook Promoting Self-Stigma?

For some time, it’s been clear to mental health professionals that social media could be a problem for teens. Facebook, which owns Instagram, has long minimized the issue. But reporting this week from the Wall Street Journal tells suggests that Facebook knows from its own research that Instagram promotes self-stigma for teenage girls. Slides from internal presentations of their research findings are damning:

“We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls.”

“Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression. This reaction
was unprompted and consistent across all groups.”

This sharply contrasts with what CEO Mark Zuckerberg told a congressional hearing in earlier this year:

“The research that we’ve seen is that using social apps to connect with other people can have positive mental-health benefits.”

Increased Pressure in the Pandemic

In Pediatric Psychology, Leah Lessard and Rebecca Puhl recently found that this problem may have become worse during the pandemic. About their research, they wrote:

“Our results indicate that increased exposure to weight stigmatizing social media content is likely to have implications for adolescents’ health and wellbeing, particularly taking a toll on how adolescents feel about their bodies. Indeed, while 41% of our overall adolescent sample reported feeling more dissatisfied with their bodies since the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly two-thirds of those who indicated increased exposure to weight stigma on social media reported increased dissatisfaction with their bodies.”

In fact, obesity has risen for youth during the pandemic. So pressure of weight stigma on social media may be amplifying the problem.

Algorithms, Engagement, and Money

Facebook has a problem. Their algorithms are very efficient for generating engagement and thus profitability for the company. But they can also have adverse social and psychological effects. The company has a record of concealing those effects, writes Will Oremus in the Washington Post:

“A pattern has emerged in which findings that implicate core Facebook features or systems, or which would require costly or politically dicey interventions, are reportedly brushed aside by top executives, and come out only when leaked to the media by frustrated employees or former employees.”

So it appears that Facebook, through Instagram, may be promoting self-stigma. With extensive investment in research to understand how users respond to their platform, the company seems to understand this. But they play it down with statements like this one posted on Tuesday:

“Issues like negative social comparison and anxiety exist in the world, so they’re going to exist on social media too. That doesn’t change the fact that we take these findings seriously.”

Avert disaster, apologize, and keep growing” seems to characterize Facebook’s strategy for dealing with this. In that framework, harms to the mental health of youth add up to a cost of doing business. This is not a fine model for corporate responsibility.

Click here for the reporting from the Wall Street Journal, here, here, and here for further perspective. For the research from Lessard and Puhl, click here.

Teens, photograph by NineInk Studio, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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September 17, 2021