Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Corporate gatekeepers and big tech monopolists are making it more difficult than ever for independent media to survive. Please chip in today.

teens on phones

Peer-reviewed research papers show that Instagram can harm teens. (Photo: Thomas Barwick/DigitalVision via Getty Images)

Facebook Has Known for Over a Year That Instagram Is Bad for Teens, Despite Claiming Otherwise

Here are the harms researchers have been documenting for years.

Christia Spears Brown

 by The Conversation

Facebook officials had internal research in March 2020 showing that Instagram—the social media platform most used by adolescents—is harmful to teen girls' body image and well-being but swept those findings under the rug to continue conducting business as usual, according to a September 14, 2021, Wall Street Journal report.

Facebook's policy of pursuing profits regardless of documented harm has sparked comparisons to Big Tobacco, which knew in the 1950s that its products were carcinogenic but publicly denied it into the 21st century. Those of us who study social media use in teens didn't need a suppressed internal research study to know that Instagram can harm teens. Plenty of peer-reviewed research papers show the same thing.

Understanding the impact of social media on teens is important because almost all teens go online daily. A Pew Research Center poll shows that 89% of teens report they are online "almost constantly" or "several times a day."

Teens are more likely to log on to Instagram than any other social media site. It is a ubiquitous part of adolescent life. Yet studies consistently show that the more often teens use Instagram, the worse their overall well-being, self-esteem, life satisfaction, mood, and body image. One study found that the more college students used Instagram on any given day, the worse their mood and life satisfaction was that day.

Unhealthy comparisons

But Instagram isn't problematic simply because it is popular. There are two key features of Instagram that seem to make it particularly risky. First, it allows users to follow both celebrities and peers, both of whom can present a manipulated, filtered picture of an unrealistic body along with a highly curated impression of a perfect life.

While all social media allows users to be selective in what they show the world, Instagram is notorious for its photo editing and filtering capabilities. Plus, that is the platform popular among celebrities, models, and influencers. Facebook has been relegated to the uncool soccer moms and grandparents. For teens, this seamless integration of celebrities and retouched versions of real-life peers presents a ripe environment for upward social comparison, or comparing yourself to someone who is "better" in some respect.

Humans, as a general rule, look to others to know how to fit in and judge their own lives. Teens are especially vulnerable to these social comparisons. Just about everyone can remember worrying about fitting in in high school. Instagram exacerbates that worry. It is hard enough to compare yourself to a supermodel who looks fantastic (albeit filtered); it can be even worse when the filtered comparison is Natalie down the hall.

Negatively comparing themselves to others leads people to feel envious of others' seemingly better lives and bodies. Recently, researchers even tried to combat this effect by reminding Instagram users that the posts were unrealistic.

It didn't work. Negative comparisons, which were nearly impossible to stop, still led to envy and lowered self-esteem. Even in studies in which participants knew the photos they were shown on Instagram were retouched and reshaped, adolescent girls still felt worse about their bodies after viewing them. For girls who tend to make a lot of social comparisons, these effects are even worse.

Objectification and body image

Instagram is also risky for teens because its emphasis on pictures of the body leads users to focus on how their bodies look to others. Our research shows that for teen girls—and increasingly teen boys—thinking about their own bodies as the object of a photo increases worrying thoughts about how they look to others, and that leads to feeling shame about their bodies. Just taking a selfie to be posted later makes them feel worse about how they look to others.

Being an object for others to view doesn't help the "selfie generation" feel empowered and sure of themselves—it can do exactly the opposite. These are not insignificant health concerns, because body dissatisfaction during the teen years is a powerful and consistent predictor of later eating disorder symptoms.

Facebook has acknowledged internally what researchers have been documenting for years: Instagram can be harmful to teens. Parents can help by repeatedly talking to their teens about the difference between appearance and reality, by encouraging their teens to interact with peers face-to-face, and to use their bodies in active ways instead of focusing on the selfie.

The big question will be how Facebook handles these damaging results. History and the courts have been less than forgiving of the head-in-the-sand approach of Big Tobacco.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
Christia Spears Brown

Christia Spears Brown

Christia Spears Brown is an author, researcher, and professor of developmental psychology. She is also the director of Center for Equality and Social Justice at the University of Kentucky.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

Omar Leads Charge Against Baby Formula Monopolies Amid US Shortage

Democrats urge the FTC to probe "any unfair or unsustainable practices, like deceptive marketing, price gouging, and stock buybacks, that may be weakening our nutritional formula supply."

Jessica Corbett ·


'Arbitrary, Racist, and Unfair': Judge Blocks Biden From Ending Title 42

"Only the coyotes profiteering off of people seeking protection have reason to celebrate this ill-reasoned ruling," said one migrant rights advocate.

Brett Wilkins ·


'This Is a War' for Democratic Party's Future, Says Sanders of AIPAC's Super PAC

"They are doing everything they can to destroy the progressive movement in this country," said the senator.

Julia Conley ·


Ginni Thomas Pressed Arizona Lawmakers to Reverse Biden's 2020 Win: Report

"Clarence Thomas' continued service on the Supreme Court is a scandalous and appalling breach of judicial ethics," said one observer. "He is implementing the exact same theories that his wife used to try to steal the 2020 election for Trump."

Brett Wilkins ·


Millions More Kids Going Hungry Since GOP, Manchin Killed Expanded Child Tax Credit

"Even brief disruptions in access to food can have lasting consequences," wrote the authors of a new analysis of worsening hunger among U.S. families.

Kenny Stancil ·

Common Dreams Logo