At age 11, I opened up an Instagram account. All my friends were there, so why not?
It started out innocently enough as I shared photos of sunsets and my dogs with a couple dozen followers. But, as Instagram became more ubiquitous and adolescence set in, my experience morphed into something altogether different. I would lay in bed nightly, illuminated by the blue glow of my iPhone, just scrolling. The minutes — sometimes hours — would disappear as I browsed the highlight reels of everybody else’s lives. I began to idolize perfectly proportioned influencers, holding my developing frame up to photoshopped ideals. My likes and my follower count became demented metrics of self-worth. Like any teen girl, I had my insecurities and Instagram seemed only to exacerbate them.
As I looked around me, it was obvious that the most plugged in of my friends were consistently the most anxious and insecure. It soon became clear to me that Instagram was not a force for good, so in high school I resolved to reclaim my youth by limiting my time on social media.
Because I’ve experienced firsthand the toxic mixture of social media and adolescent angst, I was horrified by a recent Wall Street Journal exposé that revealed Facebook, which owns Instagram, knows its platforms are damaging to teenage mental health. Posted to the company’s internal message boards were damning statistics like “teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression” and “we make body image worse for one in three teen girls.”
Even with this data at hand, Facebook’s leadership failed to take action to mitigate its impact on the youngest generation.
The constant bombardment of “perfection” has taken a particular toll on young girls, a demographic already prone to insecurity without the unprecedented pressure of the digital age. In fact, 42 percent of Gen Z believes that social media degrades their self-esteem.
Meta-analyses by academics Jonathan Haidt and Jean Twenge have uncovered “associations between heavy social media use and bad mental health outcomes, particularly for girls.” As smartphone sales skyrocketed, major depressive episodes rose by 57 percent among adolescents. Even Facebook’s own internal research revealed that 13 percent of suicide ideation among British teens and 6 percent among American teens can be directly traced back to Instagram usage.
And yet, with nearly half of the app’s users below 22 years of age, profits have blinded Silicon Valley to the flaws of its digital Frankensteins.
Facebook leadership demonstrated its truly sinister intent in March of this year when the company announced plans to launch an Instagram for kids, foisting their technologies onto younger and younger children despite the obvious consequences.
Amidst a youth epidemic of depression, self-harm and suicide, there clearly is a moral imperative to stop the damaging trajectory of technology. But Big Tech has absolved itself of any responsibility.
Therefore, we must resolve to take matters into our own hands.
As we come of age, it turns out Gen Z isn’t entirely full of mindless zombies contorting at the will of our algorithmic overlords. In fact, 61 percent of my peers say they are actively taking a break from social media, and 24 percent are considering quitting entirely because of its negative impacts on their self-esteem.
Gen Z has sacrificed too many hours of our youth on the altar of Big Tech and its voracious pursuit of profit. Now, despite Silicon Valley’s best efforts to keep us hooked, more and more of us are seeking to reclaim our autonomy.
Life, many of us know, has so much more to offer.
Rikki Schlott is a 21-year-old junior at NYU.