‘I felt my body wasn't good enough': teenage troubles with Instagram

Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

Internal research by Facebook that found its Instagram app worsens body image issues for young users has been leaked, revealing how aware the social media giant is of its product’s effect on mental health. According to leaked documents, research by the company over the last two years has consistently found that the photo-sharing platform is harmful to a large proportion of its users – particularly teenage girls. The app worsens body image issues for one in three teenage girls, according to the internal presentation seen by the Wall Street Journal.

Three people speak here about the link they have observed and experienced between Instagram and body image issues.

‘It’s easy to drown in the Instagram feed of beautiful people’

Emily*, 20, a student in Edinburgh, said she thought that Instagram contributed to her being diagnosed with an eating disorder when she was 19. She started using the platform when she was about 15, and mostly used it to follow fitness influencers. While her social media use initially provided helpful motivation for her workouts, it began to affect how she saw herself. “I felt like my body wasn’t good enough, because even though I did go to the gym a lot, my body still never looked like the bodies of these influencers,” Emily, who is now in recovery, said.

“Even though on one level I knew that social media is not reality, I didn’t really properly understand it.”

The 20-year-old now uses the app sparingly and with caution. “I now intentionally seek accounts whose posts make me feel good and empowered, and if I notice that a person’s posts are making me feel bad in any way, then I unfollow. I try hard to only follow people who have realistic posts and don’t edit their photos. It’s easy to drown in the feed of Instagram, because you can always find beautiful people with beautiful bodies,” she said. “Then you can dwell on that too much.”

Emily said that comparing herself with social media influencers was particularly damaging. “It’s more harmful, because you don’t really have the context. When you don’t know someone personally, it’s easy to assume that this person has no flaws and that their bodies and lives are perfect.”

‘My daughter developed anorexia over lockdown’

When her 13-year-old daughter announced she was going to start working out and eating more healthily during the first lockdown, Ellie* didn’t think much of it. “She was exercising, she was eating fewer sweets and eating more greens and fruits. On the face of it, everything was brilliant – but then it started evolving,” the 48-year-old, who lives in London, said. “Within six months, it had become anorexia.”

Initially, the teenager used Instagram to follow her friends and favourite actors, but her mother said she increasingly turned to influencers. “At that age, they have no filter – whatever they see, they take it as it is,” she said. “Nothing wrong with exercising, but it became an obsession. She would see influencers saying, ‘You can have the perfect body in three months,’ and she would believe it. Let me put it plainly: if she didn’t have social media, my child would not have been anorexic.”

Ellie spoke to her daughter about social media and the way photos could be airbrushed. “I was always contradicting the message that she was getting from Instagram, about stereotypically perfect bodies, and trying to give her wider perspective,” she said.

“But she would say, ‘Mum you don’t understand – all the kids my age worry about their body.’” The 13-year-old, who is receiving treatment, still uses Instagram. “She’s not following accounts to do with exercise, or ones promoting anorexia. My approach is not to take her phone – that would just aggravate her. I’m trying to teach her to use it sensibly.”

‘Most of my psychotherapy clients are now teen girls with eating disorders’

Since the pandemic, most of the clients seen by Anne*, a psychotherapist based in Guildford, are teenage girls with eating disorders. “I’m just inundated with young girls. During lockdown, lots of families were staying home and eating together. Eating disorders are really very secretive, but during the pandemic, people realised what was going on in their family units,” she said, adding that eating disorders had also been on the rise for years.

While concerned parents, or the clients themselves, do not always immediately identify social media as a contributing factor, the psychotherapist said it often came up “when you start digging a little bit underneath”. Anne thinks aspiring to any idealised version is dangerous: “Some of my clients and their parents say: ‘She does have Instagram, but she looks at positive people, influencers who promote healthy body imagery.’ For me, any kind of body imagery that we are promoting is still something that we try to aspire to. So even if it is something we’d like to think of as positive, we’re already labelling a body type.”

The psychotherapist said she was increasingly having younger clients referred to her, treating girls as young as nine for eating disorders. “I think social media together with the pandemic has definitely escalated the situation. During lockdown, we handed them devices because that’s all they had to do – school was online, it was the only way they could interact with their peers,” she said. “Eating disorders revolve around control, and in a pandemic, our world is very controlled by outside elements that we can’t really do anything about.”

Responding to the Wall Street Journal allegations, Karina Newton, the head of public policy at Instagram, said in a blogpost on Tuesday: “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.”

* Names have been changed

• In the UK, Beat can be contacted on 0808 801 0677. In the US, the National Eating Disorders Association is on 800-931-2237. In Australia, the Butterfly Foundation is at 1800 33 4673. Other international helplines can be found at Eating Disorder Hope.

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