Cynicism fuels Instagram’s barrage on self-esteem
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/09/2021 (376 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Most of us know, in our hearts, that the time we spend scrolling through Instagram is doing us no favours.
Turns out that Facebook, which owns Instagram, knows it, too.
A damning report in the Wall Street Journal reveals that Facebook has conducted its own internal research that found Instagram has deleterious effects on teenage girls, in particular — and yet, Mark Zuckerberg and co. continue to downplay Instagram’s negative effects on teens in public and has made little effort to do anything about the anxiety and depression young people are tracing back to its app.
According to the article, more than 40 per cent of Instagram’s users are under 22, and 22 million teens log into Instagram each day. The WSJ interviewed a teenager who joined Instagram at 13 and developed an eating disorder as a result of the fitness-influencer rabbit holes she’d find herself in for three hours a day.
Per an Atlantic piece that likens Instagram to alcohol (in other words, a depressant that seems fun at first): “Instagram seems to create, for some teenage girls, a suffocating prestige economy that pays people in kudos for their appearance and presentation.”
Instagram can put incredible amounts of pressure on women at a time when many are already feeling vulnerable and overwhelmed.
Replace “teenage girls” with “moms of young children” in that sentence, and it still holds up. It’s not only teenage girls whose self-esteem is being cratered by Instagram. Another vulnerable group under huge amounts of pressure to be perfect is worth similar study.
The past decade has seen the advent of of Momfluencer Culture, as millennial women who are internet native (or pretty close) became mothers. If you’ve used the app, you’ve likely seen Instagram Moms in your feed. They are beautiful, fertile women who “got their bodies back” and have equally perfectly coiffed children; everyone makes the same joke about $300 white linen outfits because that’s what these kids seem to wear. They host perfect first-birthday parties, and have well-appointed, curated nurseries. It’s an aspirational, heavily filtered, lens-flare vision of upper middle-class motherhood that adheres to a rigid framework of family and gender — see also the #BoyMom and #GirlDad hashtags, which imply, bizarrely, that one must be the same sex as their children in order to relate to them and, therefore, parenting children of the opposite sex is something worth noting.
Instagram can put incredible amounts of pressure on women at a time when many are already feeling vulnerable and overwhelmed. Many moms feel like they can’t do anything right, and already exist in a society that pits them against each other — as in the so-called “mommy wars,” a gross term besides, between stay-at-home moms and working moms, or the breast-is-best crew, or the tension between C-section versus ‘natural’ birth (all birth is natural). No wonder postpartum depression or feeling anything other than heart-bursting joy after giving birth is still taboo. One is never quite mom enough.
The fear of being a so-called “bad mom” is real, and most mothers want to do what’s best for their kids. So, if people are buying into the curated, aspirational image of a Good Mom that’s being sold on Instagram, one can quickly see how Momfluencers who create content spreading anti-vaxx misinformation under the banner of “do your own research” are dangerous.
Teenage girls are the troubling canaries in this particular coal mine.
Teenage girls are the troubling canaries in this particular coal mine. But Instagram’s harm is like a drop of ink in a glass of water; it blooms and spreads and eventually, the whole glass is poisoned. There’s likely not a single user demographic who doesn’t report feelings of inadequacy, fear of missing out, or like they are “addicted” to the app.
You probably didn’t need data to know Instagram is bad for you. But like so many things that are bad for us, Instagram is hard to quit. That’s by design, of course; the scroll lights up your brain’s reward centre and every ‘like’ offers a shot of dopamine. One thing Facebook could do right now is get rid of the infernal Explore page. From the WSJ: “(Research) warns that the Explore page, which serves users photos and videos curated by an algorithm, can send users deep into content that can be harmful.” (My Explore page fed me fitness influencers and Instagram Moms, I suppose because I am a 36-year-old woman. I started only searching dogs so that eventually, the algorithm would only show me dogs.)
But Facebook probably won’t get rid of the Explore page. It’s clear Facebook won’t (or can’t) address the real-world impacts of its products in a meaningful way, nor can we expect a Surgeon General’s warning to pop up every time we open the app.
And so, it’s up to us to decide who and what gets our time and attention. Facebook knows a precious, finite resource when it sees one.
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.