Facebook has been accused of “sitting on its hands” rather than act to protect teenage Instagram users after it was reported the firm’s own internal research had shown it had a negative impact on their mental health.
According to a report by the Wall Street Journal, the social media giant has carried out – but not published – research which showed young people blamed their anxiety and depression on Instagram.
It found that a 2019 internal Facebook presentation said the platform made body-image issues worse for one-in-three teenage girls and 2020 research found that 32% of teenage girls surveyed said that when they felt bad about their own bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.
The internal studies are also said to have found that 13% of UK teenagers and 6% of US users asked could trace a desire to take their own life to Instagram.
Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, said it stands by the research, arguing that it demonstrates the firm’s “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”.
But children’s charity, the NSPCC, said the social network had failed in its duty of care to younger users.
Andy Burrows, the NSPCC’s head of child safety online policy said it was “appalling” that Facebook had known about this issue but “chose to sit on their hands rather than act on evidence”.
“Instead of working to make the site safe, they’ve obstructed researchers, regulators, and Governments and run a PR and lobbying campaign in an attempt to prove the opposite,” he said.
“This is a clear abdication of its duty of care to children and it underlines why the Online Safety Bill needs to deliver effective, systemic regulation that tackles how children are exposed to harmful content.”
The draft Online Safety Bill, currently being examined by MPs and peers, would introduce new regulation for internet companies, including giving regulator Ofcom the power to fine those companies that fail to protect their users from online harms.
In response to the report, Instagram has published a lengthy blog post defending its approach.
The social media platform said the report “focuses on a limited set of findings and casts them in a negative light” and that it was dealing with a complex issue.
“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,” the blog post said.
“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 marginalised, 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 (Wall Street) 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 company added that this research, including on areas such as bullying, suicide and self-injury and eating disorders, has helped inform new features created to better protect users.
The firm also pledged to be more transparent about its research going forward.