Fifteen-year-old Halley started crying. Through her tears, she confessed to me, “I was so obsessed about if I looked good enough and how many Likes I had, that I made it my whole life. I would come out of my room after scrolling through Instagram and TikTok, angry at the world because I was depressed and never thin enough, never cute enough.”
Thanks to an investigative series by the Wall Street Journal and shocking Congressional testimony by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, the broader public now knows about this ugly side of social media. It’s the very impact that we at About-Face have worked so hard to subvert.
The testimony confirmed what we already knew.
By now, many have finally heard about the damaging effects of toxic media on girls as young as 12. And far too many of us have also witnessed it in our daughters, nieces, students, friends, and cousins.
For us at About-Face, the harm was already evident in the girls who show up at our programs: Terese, Mackenzie, Kaelyn, and Thy, to name just a few. They have lower and higher income levels, they are BIPOC and white, they’re LGBTQ+ and straight, and they are trans, non-binary and cisgender. And they all need us to help them. Because it’s obvious that executives like Mark Zuckerberg have the knowledge, but not the will, to act in girls’ best interests.
In the words of former Facebook employee Haugen, Big Tech will always choose “profits over people.”
Girls are killing themselves.
Here are some barebones facts: Girls ages 12-17 are now attempting suicide at a 50 percent higher rate than before the pandemic. By their mid-teens, girls are twice as likely to be diagnosed with a mood disorder (such as depression or anxiety) as are boys, according to Ron J. Steingard, MD. In the Bay Area — home to About-Face — the number of teens needing hospitalization for eating disorders doubled during the pandemic, while inpatient treatment centers now have months-long waiting lists.
It’s not a fluke, as Instagram and its owner Facebook know from their internal research. The emphasis on comparative metrics such as Likes, the “beauty-filters” that promote Eurocentric (white) face and body ideals, and the algorithms that fill user-feeds with posts about weight loss, “clean eating” and extreme exercise “make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls.”
In addition, bullying is rampant and the entire Instagram app was designed to create “a culture of envy” (this according to Roger McNamee, an early investor and now vocal critic of Instagram).
Should we take away their phones?
We can’t put an end to social media, nor can we keep children off of it no matter how hard we try. That horse has left the barn.
Granted, Facebook has made some small adjustments to their social apps and is rethinking Instagram Kids — for the moment. However, the Congressional testimony that many of us heard makes it clear that Big Tech is not willing to give up on skyrocketing profits for the sake of children’s health. So, we caring adults must give our kids the tools to resist this digital pandemic of self-loathing. And we can.
The solution lies in helping girls protect themselves with critical-thinking skills and digital wellness habits that last a lifetime. Once teens learn to think critically about their media and develop habits that put them in control of the apps instead of vice versa — they reject being manipulated.
At About-Face, we’ve had great success with this approach for over 14 years. Fully 94 percent of the girls in our program reported higher self-esteem and confidence, and 82 percent said they want to become leaders in social activism.
There’s not enough of the solution.
But we are currently one of only two programs in the United States focusing on media literacy and encouraging agency in girls. Others need to include this education: schools, faith communities, parent groups, and organizations for tweens and teens (think: Girl Scouts, Scouts BSA, Big Brothers Big Sisters).
Would you rather put your faith in executives at Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok to help our daughters? Help us empower girls like the 14-year-old on our Task Force who said that learning about digital wellness “helped me talk about my own issues, relate to other girls with similar problems, and think about solutions together.”
Jennifer Berger is the Executive Director of About-Face, a nonprofit based in San Francisco. Wendy Univer is a writer based in Philadelphia.
* About-Face welcomes and includes gender-expansive youth. To us, “girls” means self-identified girls, trans girls, gender-expansive youth, gender non-conforming, and non-binary youth.