On Sept. 14, The Washington Post uncovered “The Facebook Files”: hidden internal studies conducted by Facebook about the toxic mental health effects of Instagram on its users, specifically regarding teenage girls’ body image and eating disorders. The studies, which surveyed tens of thousands of people, have provoked national outrage—not only did Instagram keep these findings hidden from the public, it maintained key features that promoted body negativity and disordered eating.
But is it that simple? After all, Instagram is a reflection of our culture.
On the one hand, Instagram’s core structure is indicative of pro–ED culture. Since Instagram is the primary graphic–based social media platform, its images often feature toxic content. For instance, graphics about eating habits do not promote healthy diets; rather, they encourage diet culture by listing rigid food categories, unhealthy daily calorie counts, and other culinary “hacks” for weight loss.
Similarly, exercise reels on Instagram do not focus on building strength and fitness; instead, they encourage users to change their natural body types to have a slimmer waist, thinner legs, and other “ideal” traits. “For young girls who are very susceptible to social media, this can be harmful by making them want to look or eat a certain way,” says Sophia Glinski (C '23), program director of Be Body Positive UPenn.
But the main issue lies within Instagram’s Explore Page, which uses an algorithm that recommends similar content to what its users have already viewed—meaning that if one user views a post or reel that promotes disordered eating, future recommendations will feature similar content. This leads users down a rabbit hole that validates self–destructive mindsets about eating, exercise, and body image.
Social comparison is also worse on Instagram than other social media platforms because its marketing focuses on the ideal body and lifestyle. Instagram’s entire culture is tailored towards perfectionism, with “beautifying” filters, likes, and comments that quantify attractiveness. After just five minutes on Instagram, it becomes difficult to discern between social media and reality; it’s even harder to refrain from comparing ourselves to these unrealistic standards.
“My explore page was usually filled with reels like ‘What I eat in a day,’ ‘workouts to lose weight,’ or ‘how to get a tiny waist’ ... The exposure to influencers and celebrities whose posts are so curated or highly–edited definitely gives a distorted sense of what people’s bodies actually look like,” says Audrey Singer (C '23), cofounder of Be Body Positive UPenn.
Instagram is also the primary platform for photo–based marketing. Instagram creates economic incentive for influencers to promote toxic products: laxatives, zero–calorie substitutes, and “diet” teas. Though these products are often not FDA–approved, Instagram has refrained from giving its users any sort of health warning. “Influencers and bloggers attract advertiser money, brand partnerships, and legacy media outlets, so that there’s an unchecked commercial motivation on Instagram … coupled with top female bloggers who adhere to traditional beauty standards of being thin and white skinned,” says Emily Hund, research affiliate with the Annenberg Center of Digital Culture and Society.
There’s a lot to critique about Instagram’s key features. But only focusing on one platform ignores the larger culprits of diet culture.
The reality is that eating disorders are complex illnesses that arise from a variety of biological, psychological, and environmental causes. This can be co–occurring mental illness, weight–related bullying, gastrointestinal problems, body insecurities, trauma, genetic factors, and diet marketing. Most of these factors share one thing: They’re cultural.
The famous Shakespeare quote comes to mind: "The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings." These words, published in 1599, still ring true: We sow the seeds of our own destiny and our own culture. And while Instagram might be one of the main platforms to perpetuate negative body image and eating disorders, we are to blame for the existence of this toxic culture in the first place. In fact, when Instagram finally took the initiative to ban the use of hashtags such as #proanorexia or #probulimia, content creators overcame this by intentionally misspelling banned hashtags and creating alternate accounts.
If the social media industry is to blame for promoting unrealistic ideals of thinness and the “ideal” female body type, then so are the fashion, advertising, entertainment, and modeling industries. Audrey discusses the larger problem at hand: “I see articles in newsletters about hacks for weight loss, magazines criticizing celebrities' bodies, TV shows that mainly cast thin white girls as the lead characters, online clothing shops that present clothing in a way that’s specific to one size … It all definitely creates a sentiment that something is wrong with your body.”
And of course, the federal government’s consistent refusal to fund affordable and universal mental health care programs is beyond problematic. Eating disorder treatment is notoriously expensive, even if it is covered by health insurance.
The main question lies in the future. As for Instagram, it could change its Explore Page to offer users a variety of content—for example, recommending body–positive and self–love posts rather than a bombardment of dieting and exercise tips. “I think there’s a big misconception that to be anti–diet culture means that you don’t lead a healthy lifestyle ... I think it would be great to direct people to content that promotes intuitive eating and leading a lifestyle that’s less restricted, to show people that it’s possible to be healthy without constant dieting,” says Audrey.
Instagram could also ban certain keywords, abbreviations, and content related to restrictions, fasting, purging, and dieting—or at least provide a mental health warning with resources, just as Instagram already has for coronavirus–related content. All influencers who pose as nutritionists should also provide their credentials before recommending certain foods or diets.
And on a larger scale, Instagram should have a specialized division of clinicians, eating disorder specialists, and social science researchers, who can better identify problematic content that evades the app's filters.
As for the federal government: Until public officials start to take mental health seriously, there will be limited affordable mental health services for people of all socioeconomic backgrounds. Similarly, until the fashion, modeling, and entertainment industry include all sorts of healthy body types, there will be many teenage girls who internalize harmful messages.
The Washington Post’s discovery provoked a renewed discussion of mental health awareness campaigns in mass media content. Amidst the context of burgeoning women’s rights movements and a global pandemic, this discussion is clearly more relevant than ever. And as for its long–term implications, only time will tell—but it’s certain that the chance to cause real, sustainable change is now.