The Dangerous Experiment on Teen Girls

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. 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.

One major question, though, is how much proof parents, regulators, and legislators need before intervening to protect vulnerable young people. If Americans do nothing until researchers can show beyond a reasonable doubt that Instagram and its owner, Facebook (which now calls itself Meta), are hurting teen girls, these platforms might never be held accountable and the harm could continue indefinitely. The preponderance of the evidence now available is disturbing enough to warrant action.

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