Facebook, Instagram & The Teen Self-Esteem Crisis: Unpacking the 41-State Lawsuit Against Meta

Forty states and the District of Columbia have sued Meta, alleging that the company knowingly designed Facebook and Instagram in ways that can harm teenagers, particularly that Meta’s own researchers devoted to teen wellbeing believed that the product could, for vulnerable users, really exacerbate existing mental health problems1.

This lawsuit follows revelations from a Wall Street Journal report in September 2021, based on leaked documents by whistleblower Frances Haugen, which showed that Meta had internal research from March 2020 indicating Instagram negatively affected teen girls’ body image and well-being.

Critics have compared Meta’s actions to those of the tobacco industry, which denied the carcinogenic effects of its products despite knowing otherwise.

the company’s own researchers, the specialists that it had hired to study this issue, were clear enough on what they believed the appropriate interpretation of all the existing evidence was, and that’s both external and internal that they were able to say that, “We believe Instagram is making mental health worth for a substantial minority of teenage girls.”

Jeff Horwitz

Instagram’s harm to young users stems from its emphasis on visual content, allowing users to follow celebrities and peers who often post edited and filtered images. This creates an environment ripe for negative social comparisons, especially among teenagers who are already vulnerable to peer pressure and societal standards.

Even when users are reminded that images are manipulated, they still feel the negative effects on self-esteem and body image. Another concern is that Instagram’s focus on visuals makes teens view themselves as objects, leading to increased body dissatisfaction, which is a predictor of future eating disorder symptoms.

While Meta has made efforts to reduce harm on Instagram, experts argue that these changes are insufficient. The main challenge for Meta will be to address these issues responsibly, especially in light of historical precedents like the tobacco industry’s downfall due to deception.

  1. States Sue Meta Alleging Its Products Harm Young People, WSJ, Oct 24 2023 ↩︎

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