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Just seven minutes on Instagram affect mood of young women, psychologist says

Northwestern faculty address social media accountability in public health crises

EVANSTON, Ill. – Social media behemoths Facebook and YouTube made headlines this week over public health concerns. Today (Sept. 30), a U.S. Senate committee questioned Facebook’s global head of safety about known mental health risks for teens who use the company’s Instagram app. Yesterday (Sept. 29), YouTube vowed to ban vaccine misinformation from its platform.

Northwestern University psychology and political science experts are available to comment. 

Renee Engeln, is a professor of psychology and director of the Body and Media Lab at Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern. Her research focuses on issues surrounding women’s body images, with a particular emphasis on cultural forces that make it hard for women to appreciate their bodies. She is the author of “Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession with Appearance Hurts Girls and Women.” She can be reached at rengeln@northwestern.edu or by contacting Stephanie Kulke at 847-491-4819.

Quote from Professor Engeln
“There’s nothing in this leaked report from Facebook that scientists studying this topic haven’t known for years. Yes: Instagram tends to prompt girls and young women to compare their appearance to women in the highly curated and perfected images that flood their Instagram feeds. Yes: This type of social comparison tends to make girls feel awful. How can you not feel awful when your social media feed sends both the explicit and implicit message that you will never be good enough? 

“Research from my lab shows that when young women spend just seven minutes using their Instagram account, their body dissatisfaction increases, and their mood gets worse. Compared to Facebook (or to a control condition in which the young women played a matching game), Instagram also prompted the girls to make more appearance comparisons. This is likely because the Instagram platform is almost exclusively focused on visual content. Instagram also makes it incredibly easy to edit/photoshop images, almost guaranteeing that the images to which girls compare themselves will be unrealistic.

“We cannot and should not count on Facebook or other social media companies to protect the well-being of young people. These companies are not in the business of nurturing the mental health of their users. Instead, they profit off the pain of young people.” 

James Druckman is the Payson S. Wild Professor of political science in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and a member of the University’s Institute for Policy Research. Druckman is also part of the university consortium conducting the 50-State COVID-19 surveys at covidstates.org. His research focuses on political preference formation and communication. He can be reached at druckman@northwestern.edu or by contacting Stephanie Kulke at 847-491-4819.

Quote from Professor Druckman
“My position [on YouTube’s ban on vaccine misinformation] is that I think it is a positive development as long as they closely adhere to the parameters of consensus scientific information. It will be interesting to see if other social media companies follow suit. Of particular interest will be Facebook’s response given the turmoil with which the company has been recently dealing.”

Interview the Experts

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Renee Engeln

Psychology and body image expert

Professor of instruction, dept. of psychology at Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences

Director of the Body and Media Lab
Author of "Beauty Sick"

James Druckman

James Druckman

Studies trust in institutions

Payson S. Wild Professor of Political Science and associate director of Northwestern's Institute for Policy Research

Druckman studies public opinion about institutions' ability to handle the COVID-19 pandemic.