A Smoking Gun at Facebook: How Instagram, Like Big Tobacco, Harms Teens

instagram like big tobacco harms teens

When we think about holding a large, powerful industry accountable for the harms it commits to its users, we must answer a pivotal question: At what point does a business become responsible for the societal harms it commits? In turn, when does a business — or group of businesses — need to properly warn and educate consumers about the potential dangers of using its product?

The law would say that a business is responsible from the moment it knows, or has reason to know, that its product can cause harm. At that point, the business bears a responsibility to society at large to warn against dangers of using its product.

Some commentators might argue that a business may have a larger responsibility once the potential to harm is known: to stop producing the product that causes the harm. Others would argue that as long as the business is warning people, the business has done enough. If someone wants to engage with a dangerous or harmful product, that’s up to the individual to decide.

Clearing the Air After Big Tobacco

It’s hard to believe this, but cigarette smoking was once commonplace everywhere you went. For decades, people smoked in enclosed public spaces. People lit up in restaurants, banks, and waiting rooms as casually as we check our smartphones today.

It’s crazy to think that smoking on airplanes wasn’t banned on domestic flights until 1990. And it wasn’t until 1995 when California became the first state to enact a statewide smoking ban inside restaurants. Ever since, states and municipalities have continued to impose limitations on where people can smoke. Alaska finally signed into law its own statewide ban on smoking enclosed public spaces in 2018.

Over the years, we’ve gradually become accustomed to not being exposed to cigarette smoke in public venues. We might even take clean air for granted.

Getting to this point took decades of lawsuits — going back to the 1950s, but really culminating in the 1990s, with major class-action cases — that forced tobacco companies to admit to the dangerous, addictive properties of cigarettes.

From a legal standpoint, toppling “Big Tobacco” was a slow grind. You have to remember that tobacco companies once held tremendous influence over public opinion and policy.

Yet, the most shocking thing to come out of the Big Tobacco lawsuits of the 1990s was the fact that the tobacco makers knew their product was dangerous. They knew cigarettes were addictive and yet they kept on marketing them and selling them to anyone who could buy them.

Toxic Tech for Teens

What if an individual doesn’t even understand the dangerous or harmful nature of using or consuming a product? That is the dilemma facing Facebook — a wealthy, powerful company that holds tremendous influence over public opinion and policy, just as Big Tobacco did decades ago.

In its landmark Facebook Files series of investigative reports, The Wall Street Journal recently exposed how Facebook long has been aware that its Instagram app has a toxic effect on the mental health of teen girls. Internal Facebook documents show significant mental-health issues related to their Instagram platform.

According to the Journal, researchers within Instagram have been conducting internal studies on its user base for the past three years. Many findings are alarming.

The Journal points to a slide presentation made by Instagram researchers in March 2020:

“We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,” said one slide from 2019, summarizing research about teen girls who experience the issues.

“Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression,” said another slide. “This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.”

It should be no secret that body image and mental health decline when young users engage with Instagram. Spend less than one minute scrolling through the app and you will see a fictitious world filled with beautiful people who have perfect bodies and take amazing vacations to places you have never heard of. Exposure to idealized portrayals can wear on the average person over time. The way the app is designed, Instagram stimulates and reinforces social comparison.

A particular problem is that younger, more impressionable users don’t necessarily realize that many portrayals on Instagram are staged — or fictional in nature. Every day, about 22 million teens log onto Instagram in the U.S. alone and are inundated with opportunities for social comparison and resulting feelings of inadequacy. Their bodies and social standings cannot possibly compare to the perfect bodies and lifestyles that Instagram promotes.

Big Tobacco Version 2.0?

Lawmakers are already calling on Facebook to answer these reports. Additionally, drafts of bills have begun to circulate, potentially requiring businesses such as Facebook to submit regular reports to the Federal Trade Commission, so that the government can have more oversight. This seems to be more of about political jockeying than it does about actually protecting the public.

As a reminder, Big Tobacco didn’t do anything to change its ways until it was told by a jury that it had to pay for the harm it created. The dam was chipped away over the course of many years by the tireless efforts of plaintiff attorneys who wouldn’t let their clients get run over by a giant industry. It wasn’t until the dam broke when the government jumped in to make significant and substantial changes.

This might be the fate of Instagram — an app that, much like cigarettes, is not only harmful to one’s health, but incredibly addictive by design.

Facebook has already released statements that indicate that they are aware of the problems caused by using Instagram, and that they are working to fix problems. But that’s a sophisticated, PR-friendly way of saying they aren’t going to do anything meaningful. Instagram makes Facebook too much money.

The real path toward change will have to come in the form of individual lawsuits against Facebook. Unfortunately, this means that countless young people will continue to be hurt along the way, before these lawsuits surface.