Yesterday, The Wall Street Journal published an an article claiming Facebook has knowingly ignored its own research that shows just how toxic Instagram is for the mental health of younger people, particularly teen girls. Facebook has since published a response, suggesting the research and Facebook’s subsequent actions pertaining to the research, were taken out of context by The Wall Street Journal.

In an article titled ‘Facebook Knows Instagram Is Toxic for Teen Girls, Company Documents Show,’ The Wall Street Journal writers Georgia Wells, Jeff Horwitz and Deepa Seetharaman spend nearly 4,000 words detailing the data first discovered by Researchers at Instagram and share anecdotes from female teenagers, who detail the perils of the toxicity that exists within Instagram.

A screenshot of the introduction to The Wall Street Journal's story.

The Wall Street Journal says ‘Facebook has been conducting studies into how its photo-sharing app affects its millions of young users.’ This research, The Wall Street Journal says, has ‘[repeatedly found that Instagram is harmful for a sizable percentage of them, most notably teenage girls.’

Citing a March 2020 slide presentation posted to Facebook’s internal message board and reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, authors say Instagram (and its parent company Facebook) were made aware that ‘Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.’

Another slide from a 2019 presentation said ‘We [Instagram] make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls’ and noted ‘Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression.’ According to one presentation reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, ’13% of British users and 6% of American users traced the desire to kill themselves to Instagram.’

One of the research presentation slides The Wall Street Journal obtained. Another research presentation slides The Wall Street Journal obtained.

Despite its own research revealing the impact Instagram has on mental health, The Wall Street Journal says ‘Facebook has consistently played down the app’s negative effects on teens, and hasn’t made its research public or available to academics or lawmakers who have asked for it.’ Specifically, The Wall Street Journal cites a quote Instagram head Adam Mosseri, who told reporters ‘that research he had seen suggests the app’s effects on teen well-being is likely “quite small.”’

The Wall Street Journal article then breaks down what data it believes Facebook has gathered based on the leaked presentations, which include findings from ‘focus groups, online surveys and diary studies in 2019 and 2020’ and ‘includes large-scale surveys of tens of thousands of people in 2021 that paired user responses with Facebook’s own data about how much time users spent on Instagram and what they saw there.’

Additionally, The Wall Street Journal shares the stories of multiple individuals who have been affected by the negativity confined within the Facebook-owned photo-sharing platform.

The header for Instagram's response to The Wall Street Journal article.

In response to The Wall Street Journal’s article, Instagram’s Head of Public Policy, Karina Newton, posted an article on the Instagram blog titled ‘Using research to improve your experience.’ In it, Newton makes no effort to dismiss the validity of the research presentation slides The Wall Street Journal reviewed, but does attempt to refute The Wall Street Journal’s claims by stating its ‘story focuses on a limited set of findings and casts them in a negative light.’

Interestingly, Newton never directly cites Facebook’s own research in the article, opting instead to present the results from a Harvard University study that ’described the “see-saw” of positive and negative experiences that US teens have on social media’ as well as a Pew Internet study on teens in the United States which said ’81% of teens said that social media makes them feel more connected to their friends, while 26% reported social media makes them feel worse about their lives.’

A screenshot showing the abstract of the Harvard University study Newton cites in her response.

Newton says Instagram looks at both the ‘benefits and the risks’ of what it does and how it operates. ‘We’re proud that our app can give voice to those who have been marginalized, 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 Journal called out today,’ says Newton. ‘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.’

Newton concludes the article claiming that Instagram wants ‘to be more transparent about the research we do, both internally and in collaboration with external researchers,’ saying ‘We’ll continue to look for opportunities to work with more partners to publish independent studies in this area, and we’re working through how we can allow external researchers more access to our data in a way that respects people’s privacy.’