Instagram is killing teen girls’ self-esteem

My week is ruined if this doesn’t get at least 30 likes.
My week is ruined if this doesn’t get at least 30 likes.
Image: AP Photo/Inivision/Chris Pizzello
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For most adults, the acronyms teen girls are using on Instagram would be hard to decipher without a special dictionary. BMS means “break my scale,” as in “this photo is so precious that it goes beyond 10 on a one-to-10 scale.” Established affectionate gestures like “xo” or “143” (short hand for ‘I love you’, according to the number of letters in each word) have been replaced by new acronyms like ILYSM—”I love you so much.” The secret language of teen girls is the stuff of Girls Leadership Institute co-founder Rachel Simmons, who has taken pains to enlighten clueless grownups about their habits and behaviors in the social media era.

Simmons’s work offers relieving bits of insight to anxious parents of teens. But a lot of the practices are old hat, just with new acronyms, which raises the question: Is Instagram making teen girls any worse off than they already were?

It might not seem like it. For example, Simmons says most of what many teen—and tween—girls post on Instagram are deliberate plays on their social status: tag a friend who isn’t in a photo to share the experience to build up popularity, or intentionally post a photo of a gathering without another girl, to reduce hers. Sound familiar? The cliquish Instagram phenomenon of naming close friends in one’s description field used to happen on MySpace, only then there was a designated area of the website for your “top eight” friends. Before that, girls just chose who to preference or ignore in real life.

But here’s why Instagram is different: It’s well-established that eyeing social media all day long can be detrimental to your wellbeing. Instagram amplifies the problem, because it whittles down the elements of social media that are most likely to cultivate feelings of loneliness and self-loathing: photos and likes. On Instagram, “you get more explicit and implicit cues of people being happy, rich, and successful from a photo than from a status update,” Humboldt University Berlin’s Hanna Krasnova told Slate. Selfie-postings on Instagram are essentially pleas for approval; getting fewer ”likes” than you’d expected on a post can feel like social rejection.

What’s worse, the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery said earlier this year that image-based apps like Instagram are at least partially responsible for the uptick in plastic surgery, especially among teens. In 2013, 58% of plastic surgeons surveyed saw in increase in requests for facial plastic surgery or injectables in people under 30, as Slate noted. These apps “force patients to hold a microscope up to their own image and often look at it with a more self-critical eye than ever before,” the organization said in a press release.