By Karina Newton, Head of Public Policy, Instagram
September 14, 2021
The Wall Street Journal published a story today about internal research we’re doing to understand young people’s experiences on Instagram. While the story focuses on a limited set of findings and casts them in a negative light, we stand by this research. It demonstrates our commitment to understanding complex and difficult issues young people may struggle with, and informs all the work we do to help those experiencing these issues.
The question on many people’s minds is if social media is good or bad for people. The research on this is mixed; it can be both. At Instagram, we look at the benefits and the risks of what we do. We’re proud that our app can give voice to those who have been marginalized, that it can help friends and families stay connected from all corners of the world, that it can prompt societal change; but we also know it can be a place where people have negative experiences, as the Journal called out today. Our job is to make sure people feel good about the experience they have on Instagram, and achieving that is something we care a great deal about.
The internet has drastically increased how many people we all connect to, and how much information we consume. As a society, we’re working out how to process these changes, and what’s right for each of us individually. At Instagram, we hire the best researchers and scientists we can to look at these changes, and to help us understand how they impact people. We also consult with leading experts and researchers around the world to help us see beyond our own work.
External research into the impact social media has on people is still relatively nascent and evolving, and social media itself is changing rapidly. Some researchers argue that we need more evidence to understand social media's impact on people. Each study has limitations and caveats, so no single study is going to be conclusive. We need to rely on an ever-growing body of multi-method research and expert input.
The research on the effects of social media on people’s well-being is mixed, and our own research mirrors external research. Social media isn’t inherently good or bad for people. Many find it helpful one day, and problematic the next. What seems to matter most is how people use social media, and their state of mind when they use it.
A mixed methods study from Harvard described the “see-saw” of positive and negative experiences that US teens have on social media. The same person may have an important conversation with their friend on one day, and fall out with them the next day. According to research by Pew Internet on teens in the US, 81% of teens said that social media makes them feel more connected to their friends, while 26% reported social media makes them feel worse about their lives.
Our findings were similar. Many said Instagram makes things better or has no effect, but some, particularly those who were already feeling down, said Instagram may make things worse. In the research world, this isn’t surprising or unexpected. Issues like negative social comparison and anxiety exist in the world, so they’re going to exist on social media too. That doesn’t change the fact that we take these findings seriously, and we set up a specific effort to respond to this research and change Instagram for the better.
We’ve done extensive work around bullying, suicide and self-injury, and eating disorders, to help make Instagram a safe and supportive place for everyone. Based on our research and feedback from experts, we’ve developed features so people can protect themselves from bullying, we’ve given everyone the option to hide like counts, and we’ve continued to connect people who may be struggling with local support organisations.
We’re increasingly focused on addressing negative social comparison and negative body image. One idea we think has promise is finding opportunities to jump in if we see people dwelling on certain types of content. From our research, we’re starting to understand the types of content some people feel may contribute to negative social comparison, and we’re exploring ways to prompt them to look at different topics if they’re repeatedly looking at this type of content. We’re cautiously optimistic that these nudges will help point people towards content that inspires and uplifts them, and to a larger extent, will shift the part of Instagram’s culture that focuses on how people look.
We also want to be more transparent about the research we do, both internally and in collaboration with external researchers. We’ll continue to look for opportunities to work with more partners to publish independent studies in this area, and we’re working through how we can allow external researchers more access to our data in a way that respects people’s privacy. We’ll have more to share on our research, and new features we’re building, soon.