By Mike Tenbusch | September 24, 2021

I have the utmost respect for my three children, and for all their peers in Generation Z, for having to develop their own “personal brand” as teenagers growing up under today’s relentless, unforgiving glare of social media.

Social media would not have been kind to me in high school.  My wardrobe consisted of five different colors of corduroy pants and five plaid shirts—one for each day of the week so that I could mix and match them to keep a fresh look.  That was my personal brand, and you couldn’t tell me I didn’t look great.  But I’m quite certain I would have become a meme if I grew up in today’s world.  I would have gone viral for all the wrong reasons.

I admire this generation of young people for living, and even thriving, as they grow up under these pressures.  However, I am increasingly convinced we can do better by them.

My conscience has been struggling over the last week with how to respond to the reports in The Wall Street Journal about the impact of Facebook and Instagram and the disregard its leaders have demonstrated for the users in their wake.  Specifically, I’m questioning whether we, as an organization, can justify continuing to use these two platforms as a means of connecting with our donors and the students and young people who support our mission.

According to The Wall Street Journal report, Instagram’s own researchers found and shared alarming data about its impact on young people, especially girls, only for it to be disregarded by company leaders.  Some of these findings include:

  • We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,” said one slide from 2019, summarizing research about teen girls who experience the issues.
  • Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression,” said another slide. “This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.”
  • Among teens who reported suicidal thoughts, 13% of British users and 6% of American users traced the desire to kill themselves to Instagram, one presentation showed.
  • “Teens told us that they don’t like the amount of time they spend on the app but feel like they have to be present,” an Instagram research manager explained to colleagues, according to the documents. “They often feel ‘addicted’ and know that what they’re seeing is bad for their mental health but feel unable to stop themselves.”
  • “For some people it might be tempting to dismiss this as teen girls being sad,” said Dr. Twenge. But “we’re looking at clinical-level depression that requires treatment. We’re talking about self harm that lands people in the ER.”

(See Facebook Knows Instagram Is Toxic for Teen Girls, Company Documents Show, Wall Street Journal, September 14, 2021 (emphasis added)).
If you’re not a big fan of researchers, listen to what girls themselves have to say, from the same article:

  • Ms. Ramos and her friend Isabel Yoblonski, 18, believed [social media] posed a potential health problem to their community, so they decided to survey their peers as a part of a national science competition. They found that of the 98 students who responded, nearly 90% said social media negatively affected their mental health.
  • Eva Behrens, a 17-year-old student at Redwood High School in Marin County, Calif., said she estimates half the girls in her grade struggle with body-image concerns tied to Instagram. “Every time I feel good about myself, I go over to Instagram, and then it all goes away,” she said.
  • When…Molly Pitts, 17, arrived at high school, she found her peers using Instagram as a tool to measure their relative popularity.  Students referred to the number of followers their peers had as if the number was stamped on their foreheads, she said.  Now, she said, when she looks at her number of followers on Instagram, it is most often a “kick in the gut.”

An image of two teen girls featured in the original article that I’m citing, Facebook Knows Instagram is Toxic for Teen Girls, Company Documents Show

To ignore the research and personal experience with these platforms would be callous, and even hypocritical, for an organization committed to the sanctity of life.  The more I try to convince myself that it’s OK for us to use Instagram to send positive messages, the more I feel like one of those parents who allow their high school-aged children to have parties with alcohol in their homes because “kids are going to drink anyway, so why not make it safe?” 

I also don’t think we can stop using Instagram, the platform of choice for Gen Z and Millennials, and keep using Facebook, the platform of choice for Boomers and Gen X’ers like me.  Not only is Instagram owned by Facebook, The Journal’s investigation also found abundant evidence that the changes Facebook made to its algorithms in 2018 made the platform “an angrier place.”

Facebook’s impact is even worse in the communities in which we work.  “Scores of internal Facebook documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal show employees raising alarms about how its platforms are used in some developing countries, where its user base is already huge and expanding. They also show the company’s response, which in many instances is inadequate or nothing at all.”  (Facebook Employees Flag Drug Cartels and Human Traffickers.  The Company’s Response is Weak, Documents Show, Wall Street Journal, Sept. 16, 2021.) 

Examples include:

For these reasons, our team at International Samaritan is considering a complete shift away from Facebook and Instagram, and a new focus on using LinkedIn, YouTube, our website, emails, social events, and good old-fashioned phone calls to stay connected to our supporters, young and old, who are learning, serving and growing with us. 

For my part, I will be deleting my own Facebook and Twitter accounts, and making a concerted effort to stay in real touch with friends through phone calls and coffee together.

Would you consider joining us in simply walking away from Facebook and Instagram?

I would love to hear your thoughts as we think this through.  If you have a Gen Z friend or family member in your life, please print this and share it with them, as I am very clear from my own children that they are not fond of using email.  Let’s help Gen Z lead the way in being equally un-fond of using Instagram too. 

Simply reply to this email to reach me directly and let me know what you and/or the young people in your life think about this issue.