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.
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.”
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.
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.