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Instagram announces new features to make platform safer for teens, first set of teen-focused changes since the Facebook leaks

Take a Break reminders, topic nudges, restricting who can tag teens, are some of the features that Instagram announced to improve teen safety.

Take a Break reminders, topic nudges, limiting visibility of sensitive content, restricting who can tag teens, and providing more parental controls are some of the features that Meta Platforms (formerly Facebook) announced today to make Instagram a safer platform for teens.

Why this matters? The impact that Instagram has on teen mental health was thrown into the spotlight in September when the Wall Street Journal reported on how Facebook knew Instagram was toxic for teens girls but did not disclose or address this and how the company employs various tactics to attract preteens onto its platforms. Since those revelations, these are the first set of comprehensive changes focused on teen safety that Instagram has announced.

However, it should be noted that many of the features described below are still in testing and the ones that are launching do not go far enough in addressing the concerns raised by mental health experts, some of which have been highlighted by researchers in an open letter sent to Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg yesterday.

More tools to manage time spent and digital footprint on Instagram

  • Take a Break feature: Earlier in October, Instagram said that it plans to introduce a feature that will prompt teens to stay off Instagram for some time. Today, the platform is officially launching Take a Break in the US, UK, Ireland, Canada, New Zealand and Australia and it will available globally next year. “If someone has been scrolling for a certain amount of time, we’ll ask them to take a break from Instagram and suggest that they set reminders to take more breaks in the future. We’ll also show them expert-backed tips to help them reflect and reset,” Instagram said. The platform will also show notifications to users about this feature to make them aware of it.

“Whilst taking regular breaks from screens has been challenging recently, it has been good advice for many years, and initiatives that encourage this are to be supported.” – Boris Radanović, UK Safer Internet Centre

  • Bulk deleting feature: “We know that as teens grow up, they want more control over how they show up both online and offline so, for the first time, they will be able to bulk delete content they’ve posted like photos and videos, as well as their previous likes and comments,” Instagram said.

Limiting contact with unknown persons and harmful content

  • People cannot tag or mention teens who do not follow them: Instagram is disabling the ability for people to tag or mention teens who don’t follow them or to include their content in Reels Remixes or Guides. This feature is aimed at further minimising the possibility that teens will hear from those they don’t know or don’t want to hear from. It will be available early next year.
  • Option to limit sensitive content across Instagram: Earlier this year, Instagram launched the Sensitive Content Control feature that allowed people to set how much sensitive content shows up in their Explore feed. Users could choose between three options: Allow, Limit and Limit Even More. “Allow” enabled people to see sensitive content and “Limit Even More” restricted sensitive content the most. Now Instagram is exploring expanding the “Limit Even More” option beyond Explore to Search, Hashtags, Reels and Suggested Accounts. This feature is still in early state testing and there is no expected launch timeline yet.
  • Topic nudges: Based on research that shows that “if people are dwelling on one topic for a while, it could be helpful to nudge them towards other topics at the right moment,” Instagram is exploring launching a nudge feature.

“I’ve been working with the Instagram team to brainstorm ways to help users have a positive experience and avoid social comparisons. Nudges are a behaviour change technique studied by behavioural economists for over a decade. They’ve been applied successfully to issues like climate change, employee well-being and altruism. More recently, digital nudges have been studied as a way to improve users’ experiences online without compromising their freedom and personal choice.” – Dr. Phillippa Diedrichs, Professor of Psychology at the Centre for Appearance Research at the University of West England Bristol

More control to parents over their teens’ Instagram experience

  • Setting time limits: Early next year, Instagram will launch tools that will allow parents and guardians to view how much time their teens spend on Instagram and set time limits.
  • Notifying parents when reporting someone: Instagram will also give teens the option to notify their parents if they report someone, giving parents an opportunity to talk about it with their children.
  • Educational hub: Instagram is developing a new educational hub for parents and guardians that will provide resources like tutorials and tips that allow them to better discuss social media use with their teens.

Instagram’s impact on the mental health of teenagers: WSJ report

Internal research conducted by Facebook showed that a large number of teenagers, particularly teenage girls, trace a significant amount of anxiety and mental health problems to Instagram, WSJ reported on September 14. “Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse,” a slide in an internal presentation on the results of Facebook’s research said.

These findings, finalised in March 2020, were not made public by the company. In a letter written to US lawmakers after the research was conducted, Facebook refused to provide details of research that the company conducted on the impact of its social media platforms on young people.

What the findings say: The findings reported by Facebook researchers boil down to these observations, apart from the one mentioned above:

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  • One in five teenagers said Instagram makes them feel bad about themselves.
  • Teenagers blame Instagram for increased anxiety and depression, “unprompted”.
  • 6–13% of teens who had suicidal thoughts attributed Instagram as a cause.
  • An experiment to hide “likes” from posts didn’t significantly improve mental health outcomes.

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