Instagram: Facebook’s Online OxyContin?

Leaked Facebook research shows that the company’s Instagram platform is “toxic” to teenagers, especially girls. Now what?

Peddling Envy: The Only Deadly Sin That Gives No Pleasure

The leaked research appears in, “The Facebook Files,” a multipart Wall Street Journal expose on Facebook.

On one level, the information should come as no surprise. Generally available research on social media describes its junk-food-like effects. It provides scant nutrition, takes the place of healthier options, and contains positively harmful ingredients.

Thou Shalt Covet

Of the seven deadly sins (pride, greed, wrath, lust, gluttony, sloth, and envy), only envy gives no pleasure, however fleeting.

The reported angst among young Instagram users (especially girls) arises from feelings of inadequacy. Youngsters look at celebrity and peer accounts and say to themselves, “They’re so much prettier. Thinner, more buff. They’re so much more rich, successful, and popular.”

As a human foible, longing for what others have stretches back to the beginning, to Eve’s temptation and Cain’s jealousy.

More recently, Baby Boomers and Gen X’ers may recall Dr. Seuss’s story of a young birdy named Gertrude McFuzz (“who had the smallest plain tail ever was”) and how she envied Lolla Lee Lou’s double-feathered backside.

What would Dr. Seuss have made of butt implants?

Online Oxycontin

As with alcohol, some social-media users may have a tendency towards addiction.

Science plays a part. Products and services can be engineered for maximum appeal and intensity of effect. For example, many people might be able to chew coca leaves from time to time. But how many people can casually snort cocaine or smoke crack?

This is where the power of social-media platform and data science meet. Cognitive biases, foibles, blind spots, and predilections can be analyzed and leveraged at the individual level. The algorithms that sell us things know us better than we know ourselves.

Facebook’s Fight For The Future

At the end of the day, of course, things come down to money.

According to the Wall Street Journal, 40% of Instagram users are 22 years old or younger. U.S. teens average 50% more time on Instagram than Facebook.

With its eye on the future, Facebook has considered rolling out a version of Instagram targeting children 12 and younger (as if many such children were not already on Instagram).

What To Do About Instagram’s Harmful Consequences

Leak of Facebook’s Instagram research merely tells Facebook that “You know that we know that you know.”

Many young people (and adults) do harmful things. Some are legal. Some are not.

Facebook has reportedly tweaked Instagram to reduce harmful effects. Efforts include hiding “likes” and permitting users to adjust their own photos. Some tweaks made things worse. At the end of the day, Coke will sell Coke. McDonald’s will peddle fast food. And Facebook will push Instagram.

So what to do?

The Chinese government believes in the hammer. That government recently banned people under 18 from playing video games Monday through Thursday, with one hour per day permitted between 8pm-9pm Fridays, weekends, and public holidays. Reportedly, all online videogames must connect to an “anti-addiction” system with all users registering under their real names as shown on government-issued identification.

It’s doubtful the U.S. Government has or will use such a hammer on social media. Unlike oxycontin, neither social media, soft drinks, nor fast food leaves a direct body count.

Still, there may be grounds for optimism.

Over time, some harmful behaviors among youth go from cool to uncool to lame. From 1991-2017, for example, youth smoking rates fell 68%, from 27.5 percent in 1991 to 8.8 percent. The percent of teens who drink and drive has fallen 54% over the last 30 years.

What will make Instagram uncool, if not lame? The surest tactic is its embrace by parents and grandparents, which probably drove youngsters from Facebook.

As a backup, we can encourage conversation among young people why they frequent a platform that makes them feel lousy, or at least use it in a way that does.

Also, young people have a genius for creative insult. Who knows? Maybe a few viral, disparaging terms for Instagram influencers and heavy users will turn the tide.


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