It’s been a month of reckoning for Instagram and its parent Facebook. Two weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal published a report examining the toll Instagram takes on teens’ mental health and self-image, especially among young girls. “Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse,” internal researchers at Instagram admitted, in a slide presentation obtained by the Journal.
Then on Monday, the social media platform announced it will pause its development of Instagram Kids, a version of the site that would be designed for and marketed toward children younger than 13, after receiving pushback from lawmakers and parents. Another exposé from the Journal Tuesday revealed Facebook’s further attempts to target tweens, including the suggestion of “leverag[ing] playdates” to increase child audiences.
Although the vulnerability of minors to online predators or pornographic content may be the most sinister danger of social media platforms like Instagram, the most common critique usually focuses on platforms’ potential to make young users (especially girls) feel worse about themselves (specifically their bodies). It’s a serious and worthwhile concern — poor self-image can tragically lead young people to actions as drastic as suicide. But too often, the attempted solutions to social media’s damaging self-image issues are just another version of the same problem.
What’s interesting about the internal Instagram findings the Journal published isn’t just that 19 percent of American teens say Instagram makes them feel worse about themselves. Although we should consider the source, Instagram’s metrics found that Instagram made 41 percent of American teens feel better about themselves. (Facebook even used this statistic to push back on the Journal’s criticism.) But that number is also a potential cause for concern.
Self-confidence isn’t a bad thing, but our carefully tended online shrines to our own attractiveness often morph into something else. Even as young people are feeling insufficient while scrolling through others’ curated feeds, they’re usually pouring effort into presenting an appealing and enviable image of themselves. If they aren’t self-critical of that image, they’re likely proud of it.
Aristotle suggested virtue is the point of moderation between two extremes, and that principle holds true in the self-image department. If self-hatred is the vice at one end of the spectrum, self-worship is not the virtue in the middle but the vice at the other end.
Social media doesn’t just make us self-conscious, it often makes us narcissists. While the concerns about its link to depression and suicide should be treated with urgency and compassion, the fact that our society can’t handle seeing put-together snapshots of other peoples’ lives without feeling down about our own is generally further proof of our self-obsession.
As much as the next gal, I’ll agree that Instagram is hardly ever an accurate portrayal of real life (and often the carefully posed “no makeup” selfies and other purported representations of reality obscure struggles just as much). Adults should be able to recognize that, and to confine social media to the mental compartment it deserves. Like coffee or wine, we can enjoy it in moderation but should be able to live without it.
That’s trickier for kids who are still learning what the real world looks like, and for teens who are trying to find their place in it. Social media undoubtedly has damaging effects on young users’ self-esteem, but the solution isn’t so much hyper-focusing on self-image as it is not obsessing over self-image at all.
Our culture’s inability to respond to the pitfalls of social media reflects our deeper misunderstanding of what a healthy handle on self-worth looks like. We see it in the madcap frenzy to affirm young people’s self-declared gender identities, body image, and the vaguely-defined category of “lived experiences” as integral factors in the value of a human soul.
Once we start using external metrics to boost our worth, they can just as easily decimate it. If a young woman is self-conscious about her weight, telling her that her extra curves are what makes her valuable is still buying into the idea that a woman’s worth is determined by her dress size.
Too often, we make the same haphazard overcorrection about the effects of social media on kids. If Instagram makes young people self-conscious and self-critical, the reasoning goes, we simply need to shelter their self-esteem. As a result, we see Band-Aid fixes like Instagram removing users’ ability to see likes on other people’s posts (although the app has since backtracked this change).
The obsessive campaign to increase youngsters’ self-satisfaction is just contributing to the problem. That’s not to say we shouldn’t identify and push back against unhealthy instruments that tempt kids to dislike themselves. But combatting self-criticism with self-adulation fails to root out the inherent poison of elevating ourselves to the centers of our individual universes. And that goes for adults too.