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What your kids wish you knew about Instagram

This 2019 file photo shows the Instagram app icon on the screen of a mobile device.
A Wall Street Journal investigation found that Instagram is uniquely toxic to teen girls.
(Jenny Kane / Associated Press)

This is the Sept. 20 edition of the 8 to 3 newsletter about school, kids and parenting. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox every Monday.

Between the whimpering end of the California recall and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s polarizing “Tax the Rich” dress, you may have missed the Wall Street Journal’s recent deep dive into Facebook, and its explosive new revelations about Instagram’s effect on teens. (The Journal’s story is behind a paywall, but you can listen to Brian Lehrer’s helpful segment on it here.)

The thesis isn’t new: We’ve known social media hurt teen girls since I was a teen girl on social media, circa the Bronze Age. Specific links to anxiety, depression and body dissatisfaction were already well established in the era of Tumblr and MySpace.

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What the investigation makes clear is that Instagram is uniquely toxic to this demographic. What’s more, parent company Facebook knew and did little for more than a year after its own internal research revealed problems with the app.

For parents, this news couldn’t come at a more distressing time. As my colleagues at The Times have reported, social platforms became an indispensable interpersonal link for many teens during the pandemic, when school closures and lockdowns left them profoundly isolated.

“Social media was a big outlet for me because I was so isolated at home,” said Sarah Dowiri, a senior at Duarte High School. “It was hard to differentiate between [Instagram] helping me feel no longer isolated, versus making me feel like an outcast in my own skin.”

But it’s not realistic for most teens to quit. More than 40% of Instagram’s users are 22 or under, making it an unavoidable node of contact for the younger generation. And although use among adults has held steady for years, adolescents’ use appears to have increased significantly since 2019.

“I didn’t go into Instagram intentionally saying I’m going to compare myself to everyone on my feed,” the teenager explained. “But all of a sudden I found myself looking in the mirror and saying my eyebrows are very thick, or I would find myself picking at these parts of my ethnicity that are naturally there. I would close the app with this icky feeling, like a residue on me.”

These comparisons may be especially harmful for young women of color, experts warn.

“It’s a question of whose body brings more traffic and more engagement,” said Gloria Lucas, founder of Nalgona Positivity Pride, an Instagram account dedicated to eating disorder awareness in BIPOC communities. “It’s very confusing for young people to witness these same characteristics be shamed on them but be celebrated on influencers” — particularly when white influencers adopt trends like overdrawn lips, fox-eye liner and even “slim thick” or “thick fit” figures that effectively mimic nonwhite features.

Influencers also hold sway on image-based apps such as YouTube and TikTok. But experts say Instagram’s intense body focus invites more direct and sustained comparison, while the algorithm effectively ensures that only certain bodies show up in a given user’s feed.

“Any time I post a photo of a large person or a super fat person, [especially] a superfat Black person, my engagement goes down, I lose followers, we get less likes,” Lucas said.

Indeed, while TikTok is ruled by dancers and comedians, “fitness models” dominate Instagram’s most popular accounts — often promoting versions of “wellness” that have been linked to eating disorders in young users.

(In my day, many teens learned disordered eating from cartoonishly obvious Tumblr “thinspo” and “pro-ana” LiveJournal groups — but those same behaviors show up more subtly on Instagram, where kids often find them while seeking out healthy coping mechanisms at a time of unprecedented stress.)

“If it has ‘wellness’ in it, more than likely it’s impacted by diet culture, or purity beliefs,” Lucas said. “It’s still another unrealistic beauty standard, because health is presented not as a collective matter but an individual choice.”

Because eating disorders are much more closely linked to trauma, genetics and untreated mental illness than our ever-changing standards of beauty, kids may also be uniquely vulnerable to those messages right now.

“I didn’t know the detrimental effect it had on myself and my peers until it happened to me,” Dowiri said, recalling how she saw Kendall Jenner — the app’s 10th most popular user — post an extremely low-calorie and impossibly aesthetic food diary under the popular hashtag “whatieatinaday.”

“For breakfast she has strawberries and blueberries, and for lunch she decides not to eat anything,” she said. “I thought, if Kendall Jenner can skip lunch, so can I.”

Facebook identified ways to mitigate such harms, but was slow to implement them, the Journal’s investigation showed. Many mimic those already being applied by young users, as well as those developed by other apps.

For example, fellow TikTok users have likely seen one of the platform’s “take a break” videos — formally called Screen Time Management — while scrolling mindlessly in the middle of the night. If you’re like me, you’ve never closed an app faster in your life.

“They’re caring for the well-being of the [user], whereas Insta will let you scroll forever and ever and ever and ever,” Dowiri said.

She now also increasingly uses a private, friends-only “finsta” account — a setting Facebook recently made the default for all users under 18.

But parents can also help — first and foremost by understanding how the internet has changed since the days of AIM creeps and MySpace stalkers.

“[Parents] always talk about strangers on the internet, as though that’s the danger, but I think that the fake images are more dangerous,” Dowiri said. “They stress so much, be careful who you’re talking to. But they should also say, be careful what you’re looking at. The real damage to our generation is what we’re not being told to look out for.”

Well, TikTok has its downside, too

Influencers clearly are not limited to Instagram. Throughout California and the nation, school officials linked a campus vandalism trend to a viral TikTok challenge encouraging students to share videos of their misdeeds. The primary target has been bathrooms. My colleague Laura Newberry explains the damage and the response.

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Some relief on the pediatric COVID-19 front

We started off the school year under such uncertainty amid the surging Delta variant. But the latest data collected during the first weeks of school in Los Angeles County show that campus safety policies appear to be working. Members of our education and coronavirus team explain the downward trend of pediatric coronavirus cases. Also, the story has some important information about how the county is relaxing school quarantine rules.

Monday morning, Pfizer said its COVID-19 vaccine works for children ages 5 to 11 and that it will seek U.S. authorization for this age group soon, a key step toward beginning vaccinations for youngsters.

What two studies are saying about kids, babies

Forget once-a-week homework help and opt instead for what education researchers call “high-dosage” tutoring. Studies show that intensive daily tutoring is one of the most effective ways to help academically struggling children catch up and has produced big achievement gains for students. The Hechinger Report

A new study by researchers at five universities found that babies born during the pandemic may have lower IQ scores than those born before it. Less parental stimulation coupled with a lack of engagement with other children may be partly to blame, researchers speculated. EdSource

A little advice for parents

A San Diego therapist (and mom) has written a book, “The Not-So-Friendly Friend,” about how to help your child navigate the whipsaw world of young friendship. San Diego Union-Tribune

And if you’re brave, here’s some advice about what you should let your teenage daughter wear to school. (Bottom line: “Good luck.”) Washington Post

I want to hear from you.

Have feedback? Ideas? Questions? Story tips? Email me. And keep in touch on Twitter.


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