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Teens say Facebook's addictive Instagram app makes them anxious

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Former Facebook employee Frances Haugen testified before a Senate commerce subcommittee on Tuesday, saying that the company's research proved how damaging its platforms can be to the mental health of teens.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRANCES HAUGEN: Facebook knows things like engagement-based ranking on Instagram can lead children from very innocuous topics, like healthy recipes, to anorexia-promoting content over a very short period of time.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: NPR's Laurel Wamsley spoke to teens who say Facebook's addictive Instagram app makes them anxious. And we should note Facebook is among NPR's financial supporters.

LAUREL WAMSLEY, BYLINE: Zia is 16. We're only using her first name and that of another teen you'll hear to protect their privacy as they discuss how the app affects their health.

ZIA: I definitely have a mixed relationship with Instagram.

WAMSLEY: She says she does find content she enjoys.

ZIA: Pet videos or photos (laughter) - but there's also stuff on Instagram that can make me feel self-conscious or just sad in general.

WAMSLEY: She says that self-consciousness is driven by photos of influencers like model Kylie Jenner.

ZIA: I'm like, oh, I want to be like them or how they look, and I want to look like that.

WAMSLEY: And photos of girls she knows can bring stress too.

ZIA: There are some girls in my school that post photos with bikini. They can post whatever they want, but when I see their body and then mine - and considering we're the same age, and they look so different from mine.

WAMSLEY: And Zia says even when she unfollows accounts from people like Jenner, photos of them still pop up on what Instagram calls its Explore page.

ZIA: I mean, you can like one picture with a girl doing her makeup. And then all of a sudden, you get 10 more pictures with different girls all looking perfect. And it's just like, I only liked one picture.

WAMSLEY: That's how Instagram's algorithm is designed to work. If you like or comment on a post, the app serves up more just like it. It's a way to keep users scrolling, but it can also send people down dark rabbit holes. Facebook research leaked by Haugen found 1 in 3 teenage girls with body image issues said Instagram made them feel worse. Facebook acknowledges it needs to improve, even though it says most teens report positive experiences on Instagram. Delia, a 16-year-old from Austin, Texas, has been through a lot with the app.

DELIA: I think it did play into my getting anorexia, Instagram.

WAMSLEY: Her family moved to Germany for her freshman year of high school. Instagram was a constant reminder of the fun her friends back home were having without her.

DELIA: I, in particular, latched on to the way that those people looked and tried to kind of replicate that by losing weight so that I would be happy like they seemed to be.

WAMSLEY: When her family came back to the U.S., she went into treatment for her eating disorder and lived at a clinic for three months. One of the first things they did there was take away her phone.

DELIA: It had been established that social media was not really good for anyone who's trying to improve their mental health, and so no one got their phones for that reason.

WAMSLEY: But it's hard to make teens quit Instagram. Therapist Jaynay Johnson says teens often don't know their friends' phone numbers, so Instagram is how they chat.

JAYNAY JOHNSON: They talk to each other via Instagram DMs. And so when a parent takes that phone or they don't have that phone, they really struggle with their connections because that is how they're connected.

WAMSLEY: She counsels teens to limit their time on social media and do an audit. Stop following accounts that bum them out and instead follow those that bring joy or inspiration. Delia, the Austin teenager, says she still spends too much time on Instagram. But these days, she prefers TikTok. Its algorithm has been criticized, too, but the videos she sees there just seem happier and more positive.

DELIA: But not happy in the way where Instagram - it seems like they're perfect all the time but more just, like, real people talking about kind of the ups and the downs of their life and, like, usually being kind of humorous about it or, like, dancing about it.

WAMSLEY: Which underscores a real problem for Facebook if it can't fix Instagram - teens have a choice, and they can take their business elsewhere.

Laurel Wamsley, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.