Is Instagram Toxic for Boys?

A Mom wonders whether the flawless images seen on Instagram make boys feel bad too.

A photo of five boys forming a human pyramid. Photo taken at the beach. They are in swimsuits.
What if boys posted like girls on Instagram? Would the desire to seem attractive and flawless be toxic too? Photo credit: BrosBeingBasic

Dear Ms. Smartphone:  I am a regular on Instagram, and am seeing all these posts about social media being toxic for teen girls.  I read your column last week and mostly agreed. But I have a different take: all those pictures of flawless physiques and unclothed bodies can’t be healthy. I have four sons, ages ten (twins) to twenty-one.  Is Instagram only toxic for girls or am I missing something?  Julie, Los Angeles

Dear Julie: As a fellow Mom with three sons, there is a special place in heaven for you!! And like you, I have wondered about the social media impact on my kids. The documents leaked by the whistle blower identified a link that Facebook had studied:  girls, viewing habits and the number of depressive incidents. That does not mean we should exclude boys. While teen girls struggle with their identity and appearance, so do our sons. 

You mentioned that you are on the Instagram platform so you know that the ratio of scantily clad men, vis a vis babes in swim suits is nil. Perhaps boys/men  have more restraint when it comes to posting sexy pictures and selfies. Unfortunately, they may not have greater restraint as viewers. We assume the girls post these pictures for appreciative onlookers, males. The gist of the Wall St. Journal investigation was that thirty-two percent of teenage girls said that when felt bad about their bodies Instagram made them feel worse.

Hashtag Hell!

Instagram opens up a door for teen boys that used to be at the rear of an adult- only bookstore. And back then you needed to show an ID to enter if you were under 18. Once your teen boy goes on Instagram, you can be fairly certain they will be exposed to sexy, half-clothed women. It’s hard to avoid them, as hashtags lead you to strange places ( eg#polishgirl #vacation). Although Instagram technically requires kids under age 16 to sign up with a private account, they can still search outside an “age appropriate experience.”

When Online…

As a Mom, I plan to sit down with my sons and have a discussion about this topical issue- I want to know if they feel unhappy or anxious when they go on Instagram and I want to hear whether they think the pictures of the girls are injurious. Most certainly I want to tell them to be cautious with their ‘likes and double taps.’ They should not be feeding the beast that commoditizes women and treats them as prized cattle in an auction.  

Boys should try to see the issue from the other side of the table: as I wrote last week, an intense focus on appearance can leave a girl grappling with feelings of inadequacy and insecurity. Possibly girls should not be posting these pictures in the first place, but Moms like us have a responsibility to teach sons to take the high road. That must include their pledge to not use social media as a mouthpiece to bully other boys or taunt their weight, appearance, or intelligence. 

Longer Discussions…

Meanwhile, if it should turn out that one of your boys, the older ones, are dating a girl who posts off- color pictures, prepare yourself for a longer discussion. Their posts are searchable and shareable, so indiscreet images might embarrass them both in the future. And, Instagram is used, occasionally, as a dating meetup site. 

I want to mention that boys and girls seem to express their emotional needs differently. In 2017, says Pew Research, about 20 percent of teen girls, ages 12-17 said they had at least one depressive episode. Among boys, the rate was just 7 percent. Yet among teen boys, the suicide rate is five times higher. The CDC reports 2,039 suicides for all teens, ages 14 to 18, in 2018.  Boys post more pictures of their abs and pecs on Instagram, but clearly express their emotions elsewhere…or perhaps not at all.


In closing, it’s ironic how little we have advanced since 2003. Back then a young man (Mark Zuckerberg) wrote a program for fellow students to rate ‘up’ or ‘down’ the pictures of girls they viewed in the class roster. Zuckerberg dropped out of college in 2005  to focus on his growing social media platform. Fifteen years later, the boys are doing the same thing, the girls post the pictures, and it’s now called Instagram.

Parental Advice for Instagram

On Instagram should your teen ‘Show Up’ or ‘Show Out’ ?

A headline (no pictures) from the Wall St. Journal that reads, "Facebook Knows Instagram is Toxic for Teen Girls."
Wall St. Journal reporting points to need for Parental Advice for Teens on Instagram

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Seeking some parental advice for Instagram. I have a 12 year old daughter and she tells me she is “of age” when she gets to her birthday in December to set up an Instagram account. But now I am worried because of all the news in the press about Instagram and teenage girls. I don’t plan to stop her from setting up the account, but are there things I should watch out for? I am concerned about comments she may get about her body image, since she has not lost her baby-fat.  Jewell, Reading

Dear Jewell: The press you are referring to is a Wall St. Journal investigation that ran in mid-September. There were a number of stories about Instagram’s parent company, Facebook. They are able to shield themselves from public scrutiny on vital issues like teens and mental health while internal data suggests that the site is “toxic” to young girls.

Teen mental health is a huge issue and I am not sure that anyone has the full data or complete picture. However, I have complained loudly, on my own Instagram site. You do not have to scroll for long or post the wrong hashtag, to end up on a page with a morass of half-naked girls. It reminds me of wandering through the ‘De Wallen’ district in Amsterdam  (NV) after dark.

Chances are a thirteen year old wants to be on Instagram for more innocent reasons. For teens, there are two distinct Instagrams.  First, there is the “local” need to be online, think of it as showing up. The second Instagram is showing out– and that is where parents need to be concerned. Unfortunately, showing up and showing out can quickly merge.

First: showing up. Thirteen year olds want to be part of a group. They share things, learn, and recreate with each other .So, now instead of endlessly talking on the phone, they use Instagram to trade stories and adventures. It’s a way to seem popular in school, to get recognized, and maybe be part of the in-crowd. It doesn’t always work this way- just as in real life, some kids get bullied and feel left out.

Since this is local, I would network with other parents, the school principal, the school board and the teachers – all of them to ensure that there are classes on digital literacy. Kids get sex-education classes in the fifth grade, right?  You mentioned that your daughter might get remarks about her weight – even more reason to arm yourself with information. Digital literacy would help to immunize her, so to speak, and make her aware that many Instagram images are photo-shopped and not real.

I am guessing that your daughter has her own smartphone. Since she is only twelve you should be monitoring her time on the phone. You can insist that she set up a public account on Instagram.  In that way, you don’t need to know her passwords, and it is all out in the open. But, some parents have a different opinion on this. My concern is that these kids are more likely to then set up hidden accounts that parents can’t access.

Hidden accounts point towards a different problem on Instagram-  what I call showing out. I doubt that artistic appreciation for the human form is driving all those images of half-naked girls.  

Not- it’s commerce of all sorts that encourage girls to post. For example, multiple advertisers on Instagram tout products for weight loss, body building, and self care. These ads speak loudly to teens, who seek identity and self- improvement. Meanwhile, many celebrities post this way too, and that encourages young people to copy them.

Many teens hope to grow up to be champions at video games (boys) or get paid to be an influencer on social media (girls and boys). So girls as young as thirteen may begin posting pictures to a large public (showing out) in the hopes they will get discovered, or they start on TikTok. It’s like old-fashioned modeling, call services, etc. But now there are so many girls with ‘skin in the game’.

As a parent, is it is important to keep tabs on whether your daughter is showing up or showing out. Are the content and hashtags she posts intended for a local, community group of viewers, or a more public view? This may change over time as you glance over her social media shoulder. You might recommend that, as a beginner, she post just two or three stories/images each week. If her posts are infrequent, she will learn to approach each one with greater thought and mindfulness.

Restrict Time on Video Games?

A cartoon of a little Asian child in front of a very large monitor with a game remote control in hand
Limit Time on Video Games? Image: debate.org

Dear Ms. Smartphone:  My cousins live in Asia and the government there has decided to restrict the time that kids can play video games. Now my grandparents are suggesting that it is a good idea for me and I should limit my time on video games like them. I live in the same household as my grandparents. I only play after I do my homework and on the weekends. Usually it is when I get together with kids from my school. I am in tenth grade.  Lucas, S. San Francisco

Dear Lucas: Apropos to your question, I read that the Chinese government said “video games are like opium for the mind.” It makes me curious. Was it a political agenda, research from mental health, or sheer hubris that led to this decree? We may never know. We do know that young boys spend a lot of time on video games and Pew Research reports that  four-in-ten boys ages 13 to 17 (41%) say they spend too much time playing video games, four times the share of girls who say the same (11%).

The Chinese ban is not new: China was one of the first countries to recognize the potential for addiction to the Internet, video games, and other digital media, and was the first country to formally classify Internet addiction as a clinical disorder. In 2019 kids were allowed 1.5 hours of gaming on weekdays. The new decree limits gaming to 3 hours per week, from 8p.m. to 9p.m. on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

The interesting issue is how the government will enforce it: one way might be at the router- might it disconnect after three hours of play? Young people will need to log in with their real names and will have limited opportunity to buy microtokens. ”Farmers,” the players who mine the games for in-game currency, will need to be over the age of 18!

To me, limiting time is a thoughtful concept, but it is parents and kids who should make this decision. You did not say how much time you currently play. Note that each hour you spend on video games is an hour that you forfeit doing something else. On a particularly day, that is not huge, but over many days- it grows to be an alarming number. During the recent Tokyo Olympics it was reported that those athletes spend about 10,000 hours at their sport before making it to an Olympic team. That’s just 3.5 hours a day over ten years!

Not So Good, Not So Bad

That said, many educators in the U.S. believe that video games have positive benefits: they help develop skills like hand-to-eye coordination, speedy reaction times, strategic thinking, and puzzle solving.  It is also an activity, a walled off space, where you socialize with friends.  It’s a social thing, particularly when it’s played on larger consoles with others in the room. In China, the norm might seem less sociable if the gaming takes place in arcades or alone on a mobile phone.


While young boys thrive on these games, there is a belief, held by a majority of adults in the U.S., that the amount of gun violence in video games contributes to a “great deal or a fair amount” of gun violence.  82% of people age 65 and older hold this opinion, and your grandparents might be in that age cohort! Their causal inference could be wrong. 

Play it WITH Grandpa!

Perhaps kids who are lonely and emotionally unhinged,  seek out video games. Was that the rationale in China to limit games? We don’t know. Officially, I have read there was concern about poor eyesight (myopia), college readiness, and protecting kids’ physical and mental health.  Be able to sidestep these concerns when you talk with your grandparents! 

That said, are there multi generational video games that you can make your grandparents take an interest in, or share an online language-tool?  One option is to show them how Roblox Studio works, and create a new game personalized with their input. You may be able to convince them that your programming skill and their creativity will be your ticket to engineering school.