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Instagram's impact on mental health: will advertisers rethink the platform?

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The Drum's social media executive Amy Houston discusses the recent findings by The Wall Street Journal into the negative effect Instagram is having on teenagers' mental health, what this damning new report means for the platform's users, and if it will have an impact on advertisers.

Facebook-owned platform Instagram has come under fire this week for withholding research that indicates that the social app is causing serious harm to young people's mental health, particularly teenage girls, according to The Wall Street Journal.

In a 2020 slide presentation that was posted to Facebook's internal message board, reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, researchers said: "Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse."

"We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls," said another slide from 2019.

This isn't the first time social media platforms have been accused of playing a role in exacerbating people's mental health issues, with Instagram in particular perpetuating potentially unattainable lifestyle, beauty and fitness 'goals' that put a lot of pressure on users.

"We've done extensive work around bullying, suicide and self-injury, and eating disorders to help make Instagram a safe and supportive place for everyone," Instagram said in a lengthy blog post in response to the internal research - but is it doing enough?

Digital ad spend continues to grow year-on-year, and the social media sector is projected to reach $153,698m in 2021, according to Statista. The WSJ findings "cannot and should not be ignored by advertisers and will certainly shake up some relationships with the platform," says Georgia Bell, account manager on the student and lifestyle division at Fanbytes.

"But it is important to consider here that the sentiment of the report is not new," she says, noting that the beauty standards set by the likes of Hollywood and adland have long had negative effects on young women's mental health. Bell adds that what's different now is that "the holy grail of target audiences for many advertisers - gen Z - is acutely aware of this, and it affects their consumer behavior significantly".

She continues: "This savvy and fickle young demographic does not take kindly to not being listened to."

Phil Smith, director general at Isba, the organization representing UK advertisers, echoed the sentiment that the findings in The WSJ article aren't new, but it will be how advertisers deal with the information going forward that will really make an impact.

"What this story really tells us is the urgent need for independent regulatory oversight, which ISBA has been calling for on behalf of its members for a long time," he notes.

Smith suggests that advertisers need to "appropriate regulation that tackles the root causes of harm". He adds that these products have been "optimized for user attention and engagement in a competitive market, in the absence of regulatory constraints".

"'Safety by design' will only be achieved when there are guidelines on what is and what is not allowed," he concludes.

The business model that Instagram operates thrives, and financially benefits, on people's desire to be liked, to feel seen and to project the best versions of themselves. Influencers have no doubt had a massive part to play in this, but in recent years it has been encouraging to see many young social media stars speak out against toxic beauty standards and ultimately play "a leading role in breaking the cycle of advertisers capitalizing on the very insecurities that they helped to create," Bell recognized.

Moving forward, I believe advertisers and social media platforms do need to assess how they interact with each other and begin to de-center damaging beauty and lifestyle standards from the narrative. Reports such as the one in The WSJ are so important in pushing this conversation further, and demanding that Facebook and co be held accountable and make tangible changes once and for all.

To join in the conversation use #TheDrumSocial. Read previous articles here.

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