Is Instagram starting to take mental health seriously?

Another roll-out targeted at improving users' mental health is a step in the right direction – but we should be careful about overpraising desperately needed changes.

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Yesterday, Instagram announced one of the biggest content changes in its history: it will begin censoring dieting and cosmetic surgery posts for under-18s. It also announced that certain content would be removed altogether if deemed dangerous to the general public. These changes are the long-awaited response to calls from body-positivity activists, who claim Instagram has become rife with sponsored posts pushing flat tummy teas, diet pills, lip fillers, and dangerous cosmetic procedures. 

Emma Collins, Instagram's public policy manager explained: “We want Instagram to be a positive place for everyone that uses it and this policy is part of our ongoing work to reduce the pressure that people can sometimes feel as a result of social media… We’ve sought guidance from external experts, including Dr Ysabel Gerrard in the UK, to make sure any steps to restrict and remove this content will have a positive impact on our community of over 1 billion people around the world – whilst ensuring Instagram remains a platform for expression and discussion.”

This decision has, rightfully, been lauded over the last 18 hours. It’s been celebrated by women’s magazines like Glamour and Elle, it’s had big celebrity endorsements (including glowing praise from controversial body-positivity activist Jameela Jamil), and is actually one of many major changes Instagram has rolled out in the last year to seemingly combat its “bad for mental health” reputation. Last summer, it added in-app functionality so that users can put a time limit on how long they use the app each day. Last year, it added a feature that tells users when they’ve looked through all posts from the last two days (helping them stop the endless, mindless scroll).

Instagram also announced at the start of 2019 that it was testing out hiding likes from posts – a feature that would likely hurt influencers, but help average users post what they want, rather than what will simply do good numbers. Instagram is, on the surface, listening to what its audience needs and making serious changes to make the social network a less toxic place.

But this latest announcement should also be taken with an enormous heap of salt. Instagram is owned by Facebook – a fact always worth remembering – which relies on light-handed, performative gestures to win back public approval. (See: any of these changes on Instagram; championing WhatsApp’s “end-to-end encryption security” in the face of Cambridge Analytica.) These changes will also apply to Facebook, but you can still go on Facebook Ads Manager this very second and put out an advertisement targeting girls aged 13-18 interested in “extreme weight loss”.

And just as an employer who encourages you to take lots of breaks does so with the knowledge that breaks will make you more productive, Facebook knows that by making Instagram a more positive space, it will keep you using Instagram. It doesn’t care about your mental health: it cares about you not quitting. And these changes will, they hope, keep the negative press at bay.

We should be glad to see social media platforms making these changes – diet products and cosmetic surgery posts push unhealthy standards of beauty and encourage young people to grow up with an unrealistic standard of beauty. And there’s nothing wrong with saying Instagram’s mental health-targeted roll-outs are good; already practicing what it's preached by removing diet posts from big names like Kim Kardashian.

But we need to be cautious about over-praising social media platforms for making these bare-minimum changes that users have long called for and desperately need. When the bar is already so, so low we shouldn’t applaud companies for simply clearing it.   

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.