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Opinion: Instagram Should Take Blame for Teen Mental Health

In response to studies showing that use of Instagram contributes to declining mental health in teens, Instagram plans to offer a parental control feature. But this idea allows the company to avoid responsibility.

(TNS) — Instagram recently announced that a central pillar of its response to teen mental health harms will be to create controls offering parents “to see how much time their teens spend on Instagram and to set time limits.” While this may sound empowering, it is, unfortunately, part of an unwelcome campaign to shift the burden of responsibility onto parents.

Two decades ago, the tobacco industry used a similar strategy to deflect blame. For example, Phillip Morris (which has since changed its name to Altria) developed a series of parent-focused “anti-tobacco” materials with titles such as “Raising Kids Who Don’t Smoke” and “Could Your Kid Be Smoking?” These titles were paired with images such as a suspicious parent smelling a teen’s clothing before putting it in the laundry.

Published research demonstrates that these campaigns fueled interest in smoking rather than curtailing it. These campaigns helped the industry distance itself from responsibility. By framing the situation in this way, Big Tobacco engendered the impression that if a teen began to smoke, it was purely the fault of the parent.

However, science demonstrates that powerful corporate marketing and media messaging tend to overwhelm even the most skillful parenting, especially during the turbulent teen years. For example, exposure to portrayals of smoking in movies, which were often placed there by the tobacco industry, predicts as much as 50% of smoking initiation, easily overpowering the relationship between parenting and smoking initiation. The tobacco industry gained much with this strategy. It generated positive press for itself, and it offered teens the perfect script for rebelling against their parents.

Instagram finds itself in a similar situation. Studies demonstrate longitudinal associations between use of social media, including Instagram, and negative mental health outcomes such as depression, and internal documents demonstrate that they are aware of this. However, they are in a bind, because limiting youth exposure would also limit their profits.

By focusing on “parental controls,” Big Tech hopes to gain positive press. Yet it also knows that those parental controls will likely not improve much, and they may even engender antagonism between parent and child. Instagram paints itself as the innocent, joyous source of fun that nagging parents will have to police.

Instagram has also said that they will roll out an option for teens “to notify their parents if they report someone, giving their parents an opportunity to talk about it with them.” Teens are unlikely to use these tools. Most teenagers wouldn’t report an account that is selling drugs, spewing obscenities or engaging in bullying. Teens don’t want parental lectures about social media, and they don’t want it to be taken away. These “options” are not designed to result in meaningful change.

Lawmakers need to be careful. On the surface, “parental controls” sound great. After all, parents are desperate for the feeling of control they often lack. But these parental controls will not give control; they are designed to shift blame from the industry — which deserves it — onto parents.

We should emphasize that we are not strictly against social media. We both use social media and appreciate it. Tobacco use should not be equated with social media, which in the right context can forge connections, impart information and provide entertainment. However, in this case, corporate greed has led to the unbridled use of these technologies without sufficient attention to privacy, safety and well-being.

Fortunately, there are solutions. One is that parents and teens need to join together to discuss how Big Tech companies use sophisticated algorithms and misleading marketing to capitalize on youth’s vulnerabilities. This would thwart Big Tech’s aim to pit us against each other.

Second, we need to infuse media literacy into society — the ability to analyze and evaluate media and marketing messages. In addition to studying William Shakespeare and Alice Walker, high school students should learn to analyze and evaluate the myriad marketing messages — including social media marketing — that target them.

Third, real policy reform will center on taking control out of the hands of Big Tech. Big Tech cannot be allowed to police itself; this will be at best ineffective and at worst counterproductive. A more valuable policy option would be to drop the protections Big Tech currently enjoys so that they will be held responsible for their actions and products.

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