Last year, a widely-publicized survey by Britain’s Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), a health education charity, ranked Instagram as the #1 worst social media network for mental health and wellbeing.
While the photo-sharing platform got some points for self-expression and self-identity, they were outweighed by its association with anxiety and depression, as well as bullying and negative body image. Its net impact on young people’s overall health landed it well below Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube—the latter being the only platform reported to have a positive effect on wellbeing.
But rather than avoid the problem, Instagram is apparently tackling it head-on. Indeed, the Facebook-owned platform has an entire team dedicated to making people feel better while using Instagram—and it’s literally called the “Wellbeing Team,” according to comments given by Eva Chen at a CornellTech event at Bloomberg last week.
“[The team’s] entire focus is focusing on the wellbeing of the community,” said Chen, who heads up fashion partnerships at Instagram, in response to a question about its parent company, Facebook, and its effects on mental health. “Making the community a safer place, a place where people feel good, is a huge priority for Instagram,” Chen added, “I would say one of the top priorities.”
Instagram and mental health: An unhappy history
If Instagram’s top priority really is wellbeing, the company has its work cut out for it. Following the RSPH survey, research from Carmen Papaluca of Notre Dame revealed a connection between Instagram and mental health, particularly in young, female Instagram users. Specifically, findings from the study reported that women in their late teens and early 20s found that the app negatively impacted body image, while women in their mid-20s expressed feelings of inadequacy about their work and lifestyle. Furthermore, a recent UK study found that young girls who used social media in their “tween” years had lower levels of wellbeing in their teens, opposed to girls who interacted with it less. Social media addiction, specifically to Instagram, was also dramatized in the 2017 film Ingrid Goes West, a dark comedy examining the psychological effects of living in the selfie era.
For its part, an Instagram spokesperson says that the company has, in the last year, “reassessed priorities” and introduced a number of features to help promote a positive virtual community.
These features are mostly content moderation tools, like offensive comment filters that automatically hide inappropriate comments (without deleting them), as well as giving users the ability to create their own comment filters. The site also has teams that review anonymous reports of posts by individuals who may need mental health support, after which they are connected by Instagram to organizations that offer aid. The same resources are displayed when a user visits a hashtag page for a sensitive topic.
Instagram did not comment on whether these measures have been successful, or what, if any, metrics are being used to gauge success.
The platform has so far avoided the specific recommendations from the original RSHP report, like the use of a “pop-up warning” triggered when a user reaches a level of social media usage “deemed potentially harmful.” RSHP also urged social media sites to mark digitally manipulated photos of people with “a small icon or watermark,” after establishing the danger to young people (especially young women) barraged by heavily airbrushed images passed off as genuine.
Instagram has not yet imposed any of the RSHP measures, and it’s not clear whether they will. It’s also unclear whether the site’s new rollouts, or the creation of its so-called Wellbeing Team, had anything to do with the results of the study. Instagram did not comment on the composition of the team, (e.g. does it include psychologists, social workers, and/or researchers, or will it strictly be tech workers?), its strategies, or its goals. Meanwhile, its only public hire thus far is former Twitter vice president of revenue product, Ameet Ranadive, who will serve as director of product for the team with the broad goal of “preventing spam, abuse and harassment” on the platform.
In fact, outside of Chen’s remarks, Instagram has been noticeably coy about this new Wellbeing Team, which they are currently hiring for according to several job postings. Perhaps because acknowledging the existence of a Wellbeing Team would force Instagram to acknowledge that it has a problem fostering wellbeing in the first place.
But the problem isn’t a novel one. And for a site that’s dedicated to safeguarding self-expression, the line between censorship and expression is a tricky one. Similar platforms, like Pinterest and Tumblr, have grappled with the same issue, going so as far as to place all-out bans on “self-harm” blogs. But even bans haven’t necessarily been effective: For instance, after Tumblr censored self-harm content in 2012, a study found that it didn’t actually reduce the number of blogs that promoted it, and in some cases, censorship caused those blogs to become even more powerful.
Censorship clearly isn’t a catch-all, but failure to act may risk Instagram going the way of its parent company, Facebook. Last summer, the social media giant was famously forced to hire a small army to monitor its live videos for violence in a retroactive attempt to tamp down on social sharing gone completely awry—following backlash after both murder and suicide were broadcast live.
So what’s a site like Instagram to do? While the problems caused by technology are often blamed solely on the technology, social media doesn’t exist in a vacuum—but rather in a society where depression, anxiety, bullying, and unrealistic expectations are all very real issues. In other words, while Instagram surely magnifies the social pressures that already exist, it’s not entirely to blame for the toxicity on its platform.
But does that mean platforms like Instagram are forever destined to make folks feel crappy after using them? Maybe. We’ll have to wait and see what the Wellbeing Team has up its sleeve. Hopefully, its creation is the first step towards making social media a less poisonous place for all of us.
Instagram has since officially confirmed there is a Well-Being Team at the company