Is Instagram toxic for teens? Psychologists, social media experts tackle the question

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CLEVELAND (WJW) – Is Instagram toxic for teens? Internal research conducted by Facebook that was recently released online has some psychologists and politicians asking that question.

According to the research, one in five teenagers said Instagram made them feel worse about themselves by way of three major categories: social comparison, social pressure and negative interactions with others.

The research also found that Instagram “proliferates new and different ways” for teens to compare themselves, and when combined with constant access increases “anxiety and depression” leading to increased thoughts of suicide in those already suffering from mental health issues.

“We don’t measure up when we compare ourselves and there is this need to be perfect,” said Clinical Psychologist Dr. Lori Stevic-Rust, “As if my life is really pretty crappy compared to other things that other people are doing and achieving.”

This is particularly impactful with young female users, according to the research, leading to issues with body image and even eating disorders.

 “There’s a whole lot of science around the neuropathology of what occurs when we’re reacting to ads or to pictures or stimuli on social media,” said Dr. Stevic-Rust, “And children do not have fully formed brains yet so their ability for using good insight and judgment is our (parents/adults) responsibility.”

Some Instagram users aren’t surprised by the research findings either.

Twenty-five year old Kari Seymour began using social media sites as a tween.

“I definitely experienced a few curveballs over the years,” said Kari. “There is sadness for those statistics, which I’ve experienced first hand.”

She recalls feeling unsettled when strangers would comment on her posts and is now thankful for discovering security measures along with her mother.

However, even security measures couldn’t stop some of the strong emotions that would arise while scrolling through Instagram, like seeing people at parties that you weren’t invited to attend. 

“Friends and I would talk about, ‘what do you think they’re doing?’ or kind of analyze it,” said Kari. “Then you think, ‘I’m spending my free time thinking about what someone else is doing.”’

Now, as a young teacher in Central Ohio, she sees the same things happening with her students and tries to impress upon them some of the lessons she has learned.

 “Some students don’t care as long as they get a lot of likes,” said Kari. “I think it’s important to discuss that in an educational rather than controlling way, and understand this isn’t real life. You take a picture and make sure everything looks good and then go back to how it (life) actually is.”

Lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle, including Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D), have begun examining the research and have called for an investigation into the impact of Instagram on young people. 

A spokesperson for Facebook has said they will fully cooperate with any and all investigations.

On October 5, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s Chairman and CEO, released a response on the social media site saying in part, “Many of the claims don’t make any sense.  If we wanted to ignore research, why would we create an industry-leading research program to understand these important issues in the first place?”

Zuckerberg went on to say that they are “Committed to doing the best work we can,” and that, “When it comes to young people’s health or well-being, every negative experience matters.”

Zuckerberg also discussed the positive aspects of social media connecting people with their loved and creating positive communities, especially during the pandemic. He said Facebook introduced “new resources to support those struggling” with different mental health issues.

Dr. Stevic-Rust, who is also a mother, agrees that social media can be a great way for people to connect because humans are social creatures, but she says adults must help protect young users. 

She says parents need to be the “counter balance” to what children see on Instagram and the voice of reason, helping them cope with any negative feelings that arise when they are exposed to ads, certain images and especially bullying. 

She recommends people balance the time spent on social media with getting out there, making friends and having real experiences in real life.

“I think, for children, it’s really important that we continue to help them find the right kind of connections in the social media world. That’s where we need to do research because they’re not going to find that spontaneously,” said Dr. Stevic-Rust.

Kari agrees and several years ago began posting on Instagram every single day, calling it her 365.

It’s a private account where she shares positive posts with friends, even on the worst days to help spread optimism. She never focuses on followers, but encourages people to follow their own bliss.

“I’ve been careful who I let into that community because I want it to be people I know and can be honest with and who will understand,” said Seymour. “I don’t care how many likes I get. I’m gonna post this because it makes me happy.”

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