Instagram, TikTok compete over teen safety

The news: Multiple Facebook studies concluded that Instagram adversely affects teens, per a Wall Street Journal report.

Among the findings:

  • 32% of teenage girls indicated that when they had negative thoughts about their appearance, Instagram exacerbated those feelings.
  • 14% of teenage boys in the US said Instagram worsened how they felt about themselves.
  • 13% of teens in the UK and 6% of teens in the US who reported suicidal thoughts traced those thoughts back to Instagram usage.
  • More than 40% of teen users in the US and UK who felt “unattractive” traced those feelings to Instagram.
  • “Social comparison is worse on Instagram,” said one 2020 Facebook memo. It noted that TikTok’s focus on theatrics and Snapchat’s filters (often silly ones) that focus on facial close-ups avoid similar comparison issues.
  • Instagram’s Explore page often pushes users toward potentially harmful content.

The challenge: Moving forward, the platform will need to balance solving this problem with keeping younger users engaged; more than 40% of its users are 22 years old or younger, per Facebook memos reviewed by The Journal.

In response to The Journal story, Instagram published a blog post asserting that social media has positive and negative impacts on users, citing two 2018 studies as evidence.

TikTok sees an opportunity: The Instagram rival announced steps it’s taking to protect users.

  • When users search for eating disorder-related terms, instead of displaying harmful content, TikTok directs them to in-app support resources where they can call or send an SMS to the National Eating Disorders Association.
  • It developed safety guides in partnership with the International Association for Suicide Prevention and other suicide prevention organizations.
  • It also added public service announcements at the top of certain hashtag pages, like #whatieatinaday, that may include a mix of positive and negative content.

This head-to-head on user safety comes as Instagram faces growing pressure from TikTok in other areas. In Q2, TikTok’s engagement rate for megainfluencer content was 11.83% compared with 0.35% on Instagram, per a recent CreatorIQ study. CreatorIQ defines megainfluencers as accounts with 1 million or more followers.

What this means: Facebook announced plans for a version of Instagram targeted at kids 13 and younger, but that may become more difficult due to The Journal's story.

  • Without taking aggressive steps to solve the problem, Facebook could tempt regulators to get involved.
  • There’s bipartisan criticism of how Facebook handles mental health issues, including from Reps. Lori Trahan, D-M.A., and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-W.A. Trahan has stated that Facebook should “immediately abandon plans for Instagram for Kids,” per CNBC.
  • “Facebook has already faced significant pressure to abandon its plans for a kids’ version of Instagram,” said Debra Aho Williamson, eMarketer principal analyst at Insider Intelligence. “We believe these new revelations could force Facebook to acquiesce and shelve the project.”