Instagram exposed: Young women’s reality of a toxic addiction

Source: Prateek Katyal/Unsplash

Liverpudlian student Emma Dukes, 24, reflects on the “mindless” hours spent hunched over her phone as a teenager, bombarded with ‘perfect’ beauty, ‘perfect’ bodies, ‘perfect’ relationships and ‘perfect’ lives.

“I didn’t understand that what I saw online wasn’t real," she said.

Instagram is particularly problematic. While suffering from anorexia in her teens, Dukes used the platform to find a relatable community, but it quickly turned sour.

“It was a really toxic environment because I would be comparing myself to other people, other people’s recoveries, what other people were eating. It [kept me] unwell and striving to be more unwell," she added.

For young females in particular, research continually suggests that constant, casual engagement with the app can cause pervasive, deeply-ingrained mental health and body image issues.

In late summer, Frances Haugen, former employee at Meta (formerly Facebook), blew the whistle on Instagram’s owner for prioritising profit over user wellbeing. She has since released thousands of company documents, including a scathing internal report into Instagram’s impact on teens’ mental health.

One document from 2019, published by the Wall Street Journal, explicitly states: “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls.”

Pratiti Raychoudhury, Vice President and Head of Research at Meta, has highlighted that the research had a sample of just 40 teenagers and did not find Instagram to have a comprehensively negative impact. Nevertheless, it is evident that Meta knows its platform is harming its most vulnerable users, and has done for some time.

At a parliamentary hearing with UK MPs in October, Haugen said: “Children don’t have as good self-regulation as adults do, that’s why they’re not allowed to buy cigarettes. When kids describe their engagement with Instagram, Facebook’s own research describes it as ‘an addict’s narrative’.”

Paradoxically, young women seem especially susceptible to self-destructive addiction, scrolling for hours every single day, potentially looking at thousands of photos of ‘perfect’ girls in the process.

Photoshop, editing and filters are arguably the biggest contributors to Instagram’s warped ideals. Alarmingly, Dukes shared: “When I look at my phone camera and I don’t have make up on or don’t have a filter on, I don’t even feel like I look like me.” Instagram’s fantasy of flawlessness is alienating young women from themselves.

Part-time social media manager Kirsty Thomson, 22, from Edinburgh, also struggles with the volume of posts centred around ‘perfection’.

“The pioneers of the fashion industry [are] all perpetuating the idea of what it means to be beautiful as being skinny. If the most successful people that you’re seeing visibly doing well are the ones that are the thinnest, I guess that makes you feel like you have to be thin," Thomson said.

Aiysha Younas, 27, a freelance journalist from Manchester, feels this is all connected to the patriarchal “male gaze” – the idea that visual media is designed to satisfy a heterosexual man’s perspective. By editing revealing pictures, she says: “[Women are] essentially showing what men want to see. What they see as sexual, what they see as attractive, we’re now pushing that through editing to appeal to the male gaze.”

Instagram’s detrimental impact on body confidence isn’t ground-breaking news. A 2017 report by the Royal Society for Public Health, which questioned 1,479 14-to-24-year-olds on their social media usage, rated Instagram the worst for mental health in comparison with YouTube, Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter. Of all the platforms, Instagram had the worst impact on body image.

Burcu Borysik, Head of Policy and Public Affairs at The Society, said this result was down to failures in promoting a body-positive image to young female users.

She spoke of a “looming mental health crisis among children and young people”, aggravated since more vulnerable children than ever are now digitally native. “The negative impact of social media on children and young people is even more acute [than in 2017]," she added.

Recent NHS data echoes Borysik’s view that social media poses a “fundamental public health concern” to young people. The Mental Health of Children and Young People in England 2021 survey reveals that 17% of 11-to-16-year-olds say the number of likes, comments and shares they get on posts influences their mood, and half (51%) feel they spent too much time on social media.

Instagram is not all bad. Mel Sebata, 25, a freelance writer and content creator from Gloucester, has altered her usage to get inspiration from fellow black women.

Sebata said: “I follow people that look a bit like me, and say she’s doing something that I want to do, then it’s like, ‘cool, if she can do it, I can do it’."

An anonymous father from London shared that his teenage daughter, who has been hospitalised due to anorexia and suicidal tendencies for a number of years, uses the app to keep in touch with friends, meaning she feels less isolated.

“Instagram has been, and will, I am sure, continue to be, an invaluable lifeline for her as she works towards re-integration,” he said.

Rosalind Jane, 29, another part-time influencer with chronic illnesses, emphasised the struggle of using Instagram constructively, saying she had to “take [her] power back” from the app before she could do so. After previously comparing herself to others, she now purposefully posts therapeutic things to help her and others accept their flaws and realise that it is okay not to be perfect.

Sadly, many young women and teenage girls are unable to recognise this, and are stuck in a loop of toxic engagement. Borysik argues that “regulation, redesign and support” at a company and societal level are required to break this cycle.

The UK government describes its Draft Online Safety Bill as “the government’s manifesto commitment to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online while defending free expression”. The proposed legislation will focus primarily on fraudulent accounts, digital security risks and online hate crimes, with little attention paid to protecting young people’s mental health.

In the case of disordered eating, for example, Instagram blurs triggering or graphic images and displays content from eating disorder charity Beat UK to searchers of ED-related posts, but these steps seem to have been insufficient thus far.

Despite Meta hiring 40,000 people to protect users by regulating content, Haugen says this is not enough. She argues Instagram’s algorithms – which, by design, show users similar content over and over again even if it is damaging – are harmful, and that “moving to systems that are human-scaled is the safest way to design social media”. She told the parliamentary hearing that this can only be achieved through external regulation.

“Until we bring in a counterweight, these things will be operated for the shareholders’ interest and not the public interest," she said.

Sebata tries to rebel against the algorithms by continually monitoring and tailoring what appears on her feed. “It’s all about how you look at content, consume it, but don’t let it consume you.”

The worry is that young people are incapable of this self-regulation, with teenage girls particularly impressionable regarding their self-image.

Dukes has a number of tips she would share with girls starting out on Instagram. She advises taking everything “with a pinch of salt”, only following people who interest or benefit them, taking regular breaks if the app negatively impacts their mindset and never using filters.

However, despite the app’s negative effects, she would not consider giving it up. “I think that’s how social media gets people: you feel like you’re missing out if you’re not on it.”

And so, the loop of damaging usage continues.