Instagram is incredibly popular among teenagers. In 2018, the Pew Research Center found that 72% of teenagers used the app. That percentage is even higher now. Over the course of the pandemic, teen social media use increased by 17%. Moreover, the pandemic also led tweens and younger children to use social media more frequently. According to the New York Times, daily screen time for children ages eight to twelve increased an average of one hour and eleven minutes from 2019 to 2021. The New York Times also noted “an upswing in social media use among children ages 8 to 12, on platforms such as Instagram.” This increase occurred despite Instagram’s requirement that users be 13 or older. The increase in screen time in turn increased scrutiny of Instagram and teen mental health.
The Suspended Plan for Instagram Youth
In early 2021, Facebook (now Meta) planned to develop a version of Instagram for younger users. Buzzfeed News obtained internal posts pointing to these plans. In March 2021, Buzzfeed reported that Instagram’s vice president of product wrote that “building a version of Instagram that allows people under the age of 13 to safely use Instagram for the first time” was a company priority. In the same post, the VP of product announced that they’d simultaneously focus on “accelerating our integrity and privacy work to ensure the safest possible experience for teens.” Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, told Buzzfeed News they sought “to create a version of Instagram for young people or kids where parents have transparency or control.”
Instagram and Teen Mental Health Concerns
Instagram restricted younger users from using the platform because of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA. COPPA forbids websites and apps from collecting information from or about children 13 and under without prior parental permission. However, this wasn’t the only stumbling block for Instagram Youth. As Taylor Lorenz described in the Atlantic Monthly, 59% of teens said they’d been bullied online. Bullying seemed especially prevalent on Instagram. According to a survey, “more than one in five 12-to-20-year-olds experience bullying specifically on Instagram.” In fact, not long after plans for Instagram Youth emerged, so did internal documents about how the app negatively affected teen mental health. The Wall Street Journal reported that these internal documents showed the company was aware of the damage done to young girls – and intentionally downplayed it.
Lawmakers Express Concern Regarding Instagram and Mental Health
In September of 2021, several lawmakers sent Facebook a letter outlining their concerns regarding Instagram Youth. These concerns centered on mental health. Sen. Ed Markey and Reps. Kathy Castor and Lori Trahan wrote that Mark Zuckerburg testified that Instagram positively affected users’ mental health. However, the letter states, “your own company’s research points to disturbing relationships between Instagram use and young people’s mental health challenges.”
Soon afterwards, Instagram paused the plan for Instagram Youth. Additionally, they announced their work on features intended to reduce the harm to mental health. One feature, according to Adam Mosseri, is a “nudge” to suggest other topics if a user focused too long on a subject that could harm their mental health. However, other apps popular with teens use more direct features to safeguard mental health. According to CNBC, TikTok goes beyond a “nudge” to “direct users to support, such as a Crisis Text Line if they search for the term ‘suicide.’”
How Schools Can Help Students with Mental Health
While schools can’t prevent students from having Instagram accounts, they can help protect their mental health. In fact, technology can actually help schools detect ways that social media has harmed students’ mental health. Screen monitoring software like LearnSafe can detect mentions of depression, suicidal ideation, and self-harm. In one particular case, LearnSafe’s Digital Safety Representatives saw a student expressing intentions of self-harm. They quickly notified the school safety team, who gave this student the help they needed. LearnSafe also provides tele-health services to help schools help students who may be suffering. With LearnSafe, schools can protect their students’ mental health – and even save lives.