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Instagram and mental health

Teens and mental health: Instagram in focus for US senators

A senior Facebook official was heard by US senators after a series of revelations by the Wall Street Journal showed that the company was aware of the negative impact its services were having on teenagers.

Instagram and mental health

Facebook's head of security Antigone Davis faced a barrage of criticism and accusations when she appeared before the US Senate Commerce Committee on 30 September. Davis had to answer questions about the impact of Facebook's Instagram on teenagers' mental health.

In mid-September, the Wall Street Journal published a series of articles based on the results of internal Facebook studies which, according to the paper, showed that the company was fully aware of the negative effects of its services in areas ranging from mental health to political polarisation, but that it had been slow to react, mainly for fear of a drop in usage figures.

Part of this series was specifically about Instagram and the negative effects the app can have on teenagers, and more specifically on teenage girls: problems with self-image, sleep, or eating disorders.

Following this publication, which largely coincided with the conclusions of independent studies, Facebook and Instagram made a series of announcements to downplay and contradict the US newspaper's claims and reassure regulators. On Monday 27 September, the company announced that it was definitively abandoning its controversial plan to create a version of Instagram for children under 13. The company also claimed that the studies consulted by the Wall Street Journal were not definitive or comprehensive enough, before finally releasing two presentations on Wednesday describing the studies, with comments to "contextualize" the findings.

In front of senators, Davis was repeatedly challenged. Faced with very specific questions, particularly from Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal, who has campaigned for years for stricter oversight of large Silicon Valley companies, Facebook's representative was content to repeat messages that Facebook has already published, answering very vaguely to almost every question.

The Wall Street Journal had that morning published six documents, including the two notices Facebook had published, to support its disclosures. It contains many additional details about what investigators working for the social network have found. While they underscore - as Facebook has maintained since the initial revelations - that most users have a positive experience with Instagram, they also show that the social network, to an even greater extent than its competitors, encourages social comparisons based on physical appearance, popularity or money, which has a very negative impact on some teens.

The visibility of "likes" is an aggravating factor

The documents show that Facebook's researchers took the problem seriously and identified several factors that the social network could address to improve the situation: they identified beautification filters and the visibility of "like" votes as two aggravating factors.

The submissions also show that the situation can vary considerably from one country to another: among the five countries analyzed, France is the country where social comparisons seem to be perceived less negatively by men, while Mexican users seem to attach less importance to physical comparisons than in other countries. The documents also show that Instagram's experiment with hiding the number of "likes" on a post had a measurable, albeit relatively small, effect.

The US senators repeatedly asked Davis what other studies had been done on the subject, whether they would be made public and to what extent they had been consulted by the company's top management. Facebook's head of security gave evasive answers to these questions and tried to downplay the importance of these studies. "These documents are not big disclosures," she tried to say before being interrupted by Senator Richard Blumenthal. "You will allow me to disagree. These studies are big revelations, they're fascinating."

Facebook's research also points out that celebrity posts are an important part of the user experience. "Nearly half of the content users see on Instagram comes from celebrities (accounting for 0.1 percent of followers)," the researchers write. However, "the presence of more content in celebrity feeds is correlated with more negative and fewer positive shares," they write.

Another article, published by the Wall Street Journal, suggests working with celebrities who are known to generate more negative comparisons -- the list of examples includes mainly stars popular with U.S. teens, such as Billie Eilish, Ariana Grande or Selena Gomez -- to persuade them to change the way they post on the social network.

Facebook and mental health: Here comes Bill

The questions are probably just the beginning of the most important on Instagram and Facebook. A whistleblower handed Senator Blumenthal more internal Facebook documents, "several thousand pages in total," he explained during the hearing. The anonymous source will be heard on the Senate floor on Tuesday, October 5, and will be a guest on the popular 60 Minutes program on October 3.

The Wall Street Journal's revelations also appear to have achieved a power objective: getting Republicans and Democrats in the Senate to unite. Usually, the two sides play very different roles during these hearings, with Republicans accusing Facebook of "censoring" them and Democrats attacking the social network for its lack of moderation. This time, with few exceptions, elected officials on both sides were very united in their criticism and questions, and they plan to introduce a new bipartisan bill to strengthen legal protections for underage users of social networking sites.

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