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Are Facebook and Instagram conducting a “dangerous experiment on teen girls” and destroying their self-esteem?

If you ask a “Red Pilled” guy what he thinks about social media, he’s likely to launch into a tirade. In the Red Pill world, social media and dating apps are making life worse for men — by making women feel too good about themselves.

As they see it, social media like Facebook and Instagram and dating apps like Tinder offer women endless validation every time they post a new selfie, causing so-called simps and other thirsty males to shower them with praise in the form of likes, compliments and the occasional (or maybe not so occasional) dick pic.

I’ve written about this issue before; it’s a common trope in Red Pill land. It’s also utter bullshit — an assortment of studies have found that while social media can lower the self-esteem of men and boys, it lowers the self-esteem of women and girls far more.

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt — author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion  and The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure — has a provocative (and rather disturbing) long article in The Atlantic detailing the effects of too much and too early social media on the female psyche. And unlike the Red Pill whiners, he’s got studies to back up his conclusions.

Social media gets blamed for many of America’s ills, including the polarization of our politics and the erosion of truth itself. But proving that harms have occurred to all of society is hard. Far easier to show is the damage to a specific class of people: adolescent girls, whose rates of depression, anxiety, and self-injury surged in the early 2010s, as social-media platforms proliferated and expanded.

Correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation, as Haidt himself acknowledges. But this particular correlation is quite striking.

Much more than for boys, adolescence typically heightens girls’ self-consciousness about their changing body and amplifies insecurities about where they fit in their social network. Social media—particularly Instagram, which displaces other forms of interaction among teens, puts the size of their friend group on public display, and subjects their physical appearance to the hard metrics of likes and comment counts—takes the worst parts of middle school and glossy women’s magazines and intensifies them.

So what proof does he have to back up these claims? Looking at an assortment of studies on the subject, Haidt concludes:

Something terrible has happened to Gen Z, the generation born after 1996. Rates of teen depression and anxiety have gone up and down over time, but it is rare to find an “elbow” in these data sets––a substantial and sustained change occurring within just two or three years. Yet when we look at what happened to American teens in the early 2010s, we see many such turning points, usually sharper for girls.

And it’s not just that Gen Z youth are simply more willing to talk about mental illness than older cohorts; as Haidt reports,

researchers have found corresponding increases in measurable behaviors such as suicide (for both sexes), and emergency-department admissions for self-harm (for girls only). From 2010 to 2014, rates of hospital admission for self-harm did not increase at all for women in their early 20s, or for boys or young men, but they doubled for girls ages 10 to 14.

If you prefer your bad news in graph form, here you go:

Haidt’s article is a chilling read, with the data pointing to Instagram as the worst offender in the “destroying teen girl’s self-esteem” category. Unfortunately, while Haidt pushes several proposals designed to try to counter social media’s malign effects, none of them seem adequate to the task.

We’re facing something quite dire: we’re addicted to technology, in he form of social media, that does as much to damage our psyches as a pack-a-day cigarette habit does to our lungs. Yet it’s almost impossible to give up, for good reasons or bad.

Haidt’s article is a sobering one — it’s not going to cheer you up from a bad bout with Instagram — but it’s well worth reading in its entirety.

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Fnarf
Fnarf
11 days ago

I think social media is bad all around, and especially for girls, but I think a bigger factor in the generational despair of Zers has more to do with the growing awareness that no one, absolutely no one, is doing or will ever do anything about climate change – even when their cities are neck deep in water.

oncewasmagnificent
oncewasmagnificent
11 days ago

Thanks ??

I suspected it, but it’s disheartening to find my vagu-ish feelings illustrated by cold hard numbers.

And to wave my second-wave socialist feminist flag even more vigorously, it’s not only, or even mainly, social media at fault. They’re basically taking a bad thing and making it much worse. “It’s the economy, stupid” to coin a phrase.

GSS ex-noob
GSS ex-noob
11 days ago

Gee, capitalist things run by SWM glibertarians that focus on outward appearances are bad for young women?

Do tell.

But seriously, I’m glad to see such a well-researched article.

Lollypop
Lollypop
11 days ago

I’ve not read it but apparently Emily Ratajkowski’s book describes how she’s realised that, as a woman, the power that beauty grants you is simply borrowed from the powerful men who view you, not your own.

But I think the difficult thing from a teenage girl’s perspective is that not being beautiful feels like failing to pass the most basic requirement of womanhood, which then locks you out of any kind of happy life. And the absolute ubiquitousness of beauty on social media must enhance this feeling – there beauty is expected, algorithymically favoured and inherently tied to romantic and financial success. It must suck.

I overheard a bunch of teenage girls on the train talking about their boyfs liking other girls photos and sighing they don’t have green eyes/blonde hair/ thin waists etc etc. As a 32 year old all the youths look like precious glowing elves to me and it was just so sad to think their brains space was being dominated by this crap. And as others have pointed out, all by design and all to make money.

Meerkat
Meerkat
11 days ago

“ that not being beautiful feels like failing to pass the most basic requirement of womanhood,”

This. And boys get to be people even if they aren’t beautiful to look at.

Alan Robertshaw
11 days ago

@ fnarf

the growing awareness that no one, absolutely no one, is doing or will ever do anything about climate change

Turns out climate change is gendered!

https://www.theguardian.com/food/2021/nov/22/mens-meat-heavy-diets-cause-40-more-climate-emissions-than-womens-study-finds

Battering Lamb
Battering Lamb
11 days ago

This hurts. It doesn’t tell me much new, aside from another reminder how deep the rabbit hole goes if we want to accomplish meaningful change.

epitome of incomrepehensibility

I heard a critique of this on the radio. The woman speaking suggested that the idea of social media being harmful could also be used to police young women’s choices and discount the ways in which it helped them with self-expression and finding communities (she spoke specifically of Instagram at one point).

So I don’t know. I don’t participate much in the “social” side; my problem with the Internet is that I use it to avoid doing other things, and YouTube especially seems to be a snare. But books and comics distract me too, so I don’t want to go down the “new media is evil” route.

(I’m supposed to be doing proofreading right now…)

At any rate, I see value in both arguments: bonding over shared interests and finding community can be helpful, but the way many “social” apps are structured means they feed into worries about beauty, popularity, etc.

Gerry Sherry
Gerry Sherry
10 days ago

I wonder what the wonderibble WATO has to say on this topic?

Dormousing_it
Dormousing_it
10 days ago

I suspected this to be true. One thing I’ve noticed for years – all the Photoshopping that goes on, on social media and of course in traditional media. Not only that, but all the female celebrities – many of them not even 30 years old – have had so much plastic surgery, botox, etc. They almost look like a different species to me. There’s a creepy sameness to them. Where’s the originality, the human uniqueness? I once heard a plastic surgeon (of all people) say, “Beauty is strategic imperfection.”. What happened to that?

How’s a young girl going to feel, being exposed to this her entire life, not knowing any different?

I’m just musing. I must sound like the has-been movie star in Sunset Boulevard: “We had faces then!”

@Lollypop: I’m in my mid-fifties. Young people look like gods and goddesses to me.

Dormousing_it
Dormousing_it
10 days ago

I meant to add – I came of age during the 1980s. Beauty standards were unrealistic then, too. Particularly because everything was so Caucasian-centric. It was white people, all the time. But – you saw small-breasted women on TV. Women with ‘quirky’ looks. I doubt Sandra Bernhard, for example, would have a career today; her looks are too unusual.

Check out the music videos of the time. Plenty of uniquely attractive people in them.

Plastic surgery wasn’t as advanced back then, true. But it was advanced ENOUGH. Remember Michael Jackson?

LouCPurr
LouCPurr
10 days ago

There has been a sharp increase in young women getting cosmetic procedures and that is almost certainly directly connected to social media. A good number of these procedures will require more procedures down the road, especially ones done by unscrupulous doctors or even people who aren’t even medical professions.

Gaebolga
Gaebolga
10 days ago

Gerry Sherry wrote:

I wonder what the wonderibble WATO has to say on this topic?

I don’t.

Dude’s clearly a troll rather than a true believer, and not a particularly adept one, either. It’ll just be some dull, slightly altered copypasta misogyny from the manuresphere….

Lollypop
Lollypop
10 days ago

@Dormousing_it

Me and my partner were talking about 80s beauty standards quite recently and (of course) they were just as unachievable for most people, but looking back women in their thirties and forties seemed to have been positioned as desirable more often? Maybe it’s just perception, but we were watching a load of hair metal music videos and the obligatory sexy ladies looked a lot more like grown ups than their modern counterparts.

@LouCPurr

The one which always makes me cringe is young people unnecessarily having healthy teeth shaved back or even removed for implants and veneers. Just… what if you can’t afford to maintain them in ten years time? Wonky teeth are better than no teeth. And exposed nerves are no joke.

Last edited 10 days ago by Lollypop
rusalka
rusalka
10 days ago

@ epitome of incomrepehensibility

The woman speaking suggested that the idea of social media being harmful could also be used to police young women’s choices and discount the ways in which it helped them with self-expression and finding communities (she spoke specifically of Instagram at one point).

That’s an argument I’ve often read about on Tumblr and while I think it’s a pretty good one and that there’s not just one thing or the other – I also think it depends on the plattform and specifically how it works.

I’m sure there’s some post on Tumblr itself who analysed it far better than I could but to cut it short: By providing anonymity and a “safe space” to share and talk about all your weird hobbies and passions, more in form of text instead of pictures (and without a well working categorizing or sorting system), Tumblr really does help many people who’d otherwise feel very alone in the world. And while I take neither part on Tumblr (I just go there for the weird interesting thougts many people on there repost) nor Instagram – I think the latter is mostly built to pull people in by the desire to compete and boast and the human need for validation.

So I don’t think it’s that simple and that social media is making girls sick. I think it’s the type of social media that reinforces all the negative aspects of growing up female. Specifically the one where we exist to be looked at.

It reminds me of a common conception in pedagogics that while boys often experience anxiety and problems before they hit puberty, it’s the other way round for girls. It’s something that I’ve read so repeatedly I don’t remember where it’s even from but the idea is, that while boys develop feelings of inadequacy being surrounded by female authority figures at a young age and being reprimanded for their “wilder” behaviour, they will later learn that disruptive behaviour will be met with respect by their peers. All genders learn that what is socially acceptable is often just a game between different positions, where different strategies can be used – but boys learn they can use force where girls can generally not. Girls however face the realisation in puberty that what they think or do is not as important as what they look like and that is a devastating deprivation of identity in a phase where a lot of identity is formed.

Hexum7
Hexum7
10 days ago

Playing Devil’s Advocate here, but isn’t this just an extreme case of correlation (not) proving causation- the big bug-a-boo of many men’s rights advocates – Bad ideas like “women get lord child custody because men have less rights” etc.?

I’m not defending social media or the pressures they put on young women at all here, but isn’t it just easier to place the blame on a symptom and not the cause- systemic degradation of women?

Ten Bears
10 days ago

Yes

Dormousing_it
Dormousing_it
10 days ago

@Lollypop: Yes, there was a trend in the 80s of beautiful older women being idolized. For example, Joan Collins and Linda Evans on the prime time soap opera Knots Landing. Not that these actresses were at all typical.

I know what you mean, about the video vixens looking more mature than today’s counterparts. I think it was the big, permed hair and heavy eye makeup that did it. People poke fun at the 80s look today, but at least it was somewhat attainable for the average young woman.

rabid rabbit
rabid rabbit
10 days ago

Coincidentally, Lush Cosmetics, of all people, have just announced they’re leaving all social media at the end of the week until the companies stop ruining people’s lives. https://www.cbc.ca/news/business/lush-cosmetics-1.6259350

.45
.45
10 days ago

@ rabid rabbit

So, permanently then?

@ Lollypop and Dormousing_it

I am in my 30s and was practically raised in an attempt to create an incel, kept away from other kids, toxic views, etc, etc, so I tend to get very jealous of any group of teens having fun I never had, but this also alternates with wondering how anyone could be that cluelessly juvenile. To quote a certain character from Babylon 5: “At least there is symmetry.”

LouCPurr
LouCPurr
10 days ago

Facebook did some market research and a chunk of teen girls told them, unprompted, that Instagram made them feel worse about their bodies. I tried to make a post with a link and it didn’t go through, but you can google up sources easily enough.

Elaine The Witch
Elaine The Witch
9 days ago

So I may be an old 23 year old now. But I was a teenager for Instagram and all that. It 100% makes teen girls feel worse about themselves. But there is another layer to it. See teenage boys are also on instagram, watching porn, all the social media things. So they see the beauty standards and unrealistic expectations for most women and think that is just normal. They also think that’s something just every woman is suppose to be. So not only do you have your own insecurities thrown back at you. But then you have your male peers actively telling you that you should look like that and that’s what they want you to look like. It’s really not good for anyone involved in it

LouCPurr
LouCPurr
9 days ago

@Elaine

I’ve seen multiple young women discussing how a boyfriend made them feel bad for having ‘hip dips’ because, of course, the sort of Instagram models that straight men tend to follow edit them out. The term ‘hip dip’ itself seems to be a recent social media invention. Making up disparaging words for normal body parts on a woman isn’t new (cankles, bingo wings, back bacon), but social media does spread them around faster.

CrawlingKingSnake
CrawlingKingSnake
9 days ago

If you ask a “Red Pilled” guy what he thinks about [noun or gerund], he’s likely to launch into a tirade.

.45
.45
9 days ago

@ Elaine The Witch

I may be somewhat unusual, having been raised to in many respects literally hate and fear people and society, but as a straight guy I feel I can vouch for the glorification of young women covered in make up and Photoshop in popular media hurting the boys too.

I didn’t get access to porn until well into my mid twenties, but still got some (frequently outdated) pop culture via movies, books, and magazines. It feels like every movie or TV show revolves around some drop dead gorgeous 20 year old as the love interest, every love song is about how great it is to be young and in love, remembering the heady days of youth, and just generally bombarding everyone with all of this.

The end result is my inner incel freaks out and keeps ranting about everyone else is getting this kind of young woman, while I missed my shot and am too old, blah blah blah.

And the thing is that this makes NO GOD DAMN SENSE. In meatspace I have been attracted to women of all shapes and sizes, ages, ethnicities, color, creed, etc. I have observed relationships of all kinds, and am well aware the world isn’t filled with only movie stars.

So it shouldn’t be a problem and in person it isn’t, but go online or intake basically 80% of media today and it just seems like there is some kind of plot to make me jealous of other guys’ relationships and give me a feeling of having missed the boat.

The word that comes to mind is “Insidious”. I KNOW what’s going on, and still can’t shake it.

(And then I feel like I shouldn’t ever talk about it, because it screams incel and implies I may have sympathy for their position… the other word that comes to mind is “Complicated”.)

Last edited 9 days ago by .45
GSS ex-noob
GSS ex-noob
9 days ago

@Alan: GOOD! Though I’m sure they’ll still do it, because they don’t want to be told they’re “hags” at 19.

I personally kept growing (as in getting taller) till I was 21, so if I’d had anything plasticed before then, it might not have worked.

@Lollypop: I would NEVER do anything to my teeth for looks. I did have braces as a kid, but that’s so they’d work better. I have had a number of root canals to save a tooth after it has gone bad and given me major nerve pain — I can’t imagine doing that for funsies so strangers can say “Hey, look at her Chiclet teeth.” Even using whitening strips can set off nerve pain and damage the enamel. My teeth yam what they yam. And tomorrow they will eat yams.

tim gueguen
9 days ago

@Fnarf there was a lot of generational despair amongst people from the end of the Baby Boom and the oldest cohort of Gen Xers in the ’80s because they thought WW3 was probably going to happen. Yet I don’t remember talk of a rise in suicide or self harm back then. Of course it may simply not have been noted at the time.

Having gotten back into checking out recent Japanese bands online(I went through a period of buying Japanese music in the late ’80s and ’90s) one thing I’ve noticed is some people with a crooked tooth or two that would probably have been dealt with long ago in the West. Especially given that they’re in the entertainment business.

oncewasmagnificent
oncewasmagnificent
9 days ago

Elaine the Witch
But then you have your male peers actively telling you that you should look like that and that’s what they want you to look like.

I still remember the sinking feeling that came over me 10-15 years ago on a teaching site.
Some of the yr 8-10 teachers were discussing how best to deal with 12-14 year old girls asking how to organise labia, breast and other surgery because their 14-17 yr old boyfriends were insisting that their genitals were flat out ugly.

The ones who needed proper information were the boys, but the teachers had no way of finding out which boys used what sites and how best to reset their “standards” to real live women rather than to unusual and probably photoshopped images fed to them on their porn diet.

LollyPop
LollyPop
9 days ago

.45

And the thing is that this makes NO GOD DAMN SENSE. In meatspace I have been attracted to women of all shapes and sizes, ages, ethnicities, color, creed, etc. I have observed relationships of all kinds, and am well aware the world isn’t filled with only movie stars.

I think that’s the big marketing lie about relationships, attractiveness etc. There of course are people who everyone seems to look at and think “hot damn” but chemistry between two people is so much more than that, and being conventionally good looking isn’t everything. It’s a silly example but I always think of (fitness influencer) Joe Wicks. He seems like a lovely guy and is handsome, and LOADS of women fancy him, but I am always so strongly reminded of a cocker spaniel when I look at him for me personally I think “aww” rather than “phwoar”. Which is just one weird random thing about how one person interprets the looks of someone else, and it’s happening all the time with everyone.

GSS ex-noob

I would NEVER do anything to my teeth for looks. I did have braces as a kid, but that’s so they’d work better.

I’ve been tempted to get braces to fix one sticky-out tooth I’ve got (my friends used to call it my “flirty tooth”, which is nice), but my dentist explained he’d have to scrape the enamel off the side of a neighbouring tooth to fit it in neatly which is where I noped out of the situation. He’s very much a “teeth have a FUNCTION” kind of dentist and seemed relieved.

Alan Robertshaw
9 days ago

@ lollypop

I am always so strongly reminded of a cocker spaniel

Oh wow yeah! If they ever do a live remake of Muskerhounds he’s a shoe-in for the role of Dogtanian.