Overlooked In The War Against Instagram: The Larger Role of Destructive Gender Norms

Illustration by Vivienne Deily-Nelson.

Illustration by Vivienne Deily-Nelson

by Amy Nelson

Recent reporting from the Wall Street Journal has unleashed a firestorm over Instagram’s toxic effect on girls. Facebook, Instagram’s parent company, is charged with ignoring their own research that confirmed the damage of their platform. Some have likened the scandal to that of Big Tobacco. Instead of attacking the lungs, Instagram preys on the brain, leading girls down a path of plummeting self worth and suicidal tendencies.

There is no question that social media has harmful mental health implications, most notably in teenage girls. Little good comes from scrolling through a feed of chiseled bodies and perfect skin. But without acknowledging the role of gender inequality in society, our case against social media is short-sighted at best. Before we place blame on Facebook, let’s take a look inward and assess how we as parents are  raising our girls to become strong, confident adults. Let’s unpack the egregious normalization of sexism across all facets of society, from television and movies to magazines and advertisements.

Studies show that as early as age eight, a girl’s self-esteem begins to drop. By the time she hits puberty, her confidence is more likely to nosedive rather than rebound.  This trend does not apply to boys. While girls are measured in kindness and grace, boys are encouraged to be strong and adventurous.  Our value system as it relates to gender is deeply flawed and plagued with double standards.  Our society has done a fabulous job promoting the importance of female beauty and sex appeal. A woman’s self-worth continues to be tied to her looks.  This is a learned behavior that predates the internet. Shame on Facebook for exacerbating a tragic condition. But shame on the rest of us for our inexcusable ignorance and unwavering allegiance to a host of sexist traditions that guarantee gender inequities for decades to come.

An in-person interview with the Facebook whistleblower, Frances Haugen, aired recently on 60 Minutes. Haugen, a former Facebook employee, is credited with leaking the company’s internal research which served as the foundation for the Journal’s news-breaking story, “The Facebook Files.” Regrettably, Haugen’s interview and the majority of related opinion pieces published to date share a unilateral focus: Facebook’s guilt. And while the company clearly has demonstrated  profoundly unethical (if not illegal) behavior, the plight of young girls, and to a larger extent, females in total, is getting minimal attention. 

The sad state of gender inequities has become a footnote in the juicy case against Mark Zuckerberg.  Indignant parents are latching on to the accusation that Facebook “chooses products over safety,” without any self-awareness regarding their own parenting choices and the sexist traditions that directly and indirectly feed into their daughters’ downward spiral. To make meaningful and long-term change in improving the mental health of teenage girls (not to mention any hope for equal pay in the workforce and a laundry list of other disparities), we need to look beyond technology and start questioning harmful gender norms in our daily lives, many of which start at home. 

The objectification of females was not born out of Instagram. Connecting the dots between the treatment of girls in everyday life and how that factors into their self-worth and mental well-being is the conversation we need to have.  Assigning blame to Facebook with no mention of the bigger picture misses the mark. 

Amy Nelson is a feminist, philanthropist, and ultramarathon runner who resides in Pittsburgh, PA.