Instagram is telling teens to stop doomscrolling. Will they listen?

Meta’s facing pressure from all sides to do a better job of protecting teens. Are its time management features enough?

Instagram is telling teens to stop doomscrolling. Will they listen?

One of the new Instagram updates involves partnering with young content creators to urge teens to turn on the “Take a Break” feature.

Image: Instagram

Instagram parent company Meta was hit with a wave of lawsuits last week alleging that the company knowingly hooked and harmed children on its platforms. On Tuesday, Meta is announcing a slate of time management tools on Instagram that will nudge teens to turn on “Take a Break” reminders and to stop consuming harmful content. But experts are split on whether the features will make any meaningful difference at all.

After pausing the controversial “Instagram Kids” project in late 2021, head Adam Mosseri announced an opt-in “Take a Break” feature that let users set up in-app reminders to stop scrolling after a chosen number of minutes (quietly removing the ability to set a limit lower than 30 minutes). In March, Instagram introduced new parental controls that included setting screen limits and getting notified about their kids’ activity in the app. Tuesday’s release builds on the existing features for Instagram, and follows through on Meta’s promise to place guardrails in VR.

Taking a break

One of the new Instagram updates involves partnering with young content creators to urge teens to turn on the “Take a Break” feature. The creators involved with “Take a Break” include Soy Nguyen, who posts popular “eat with me” videos, and climate activist Maya Penn. TikTok has employed a similar tool since February 2020 and has made a recent push for more screen time limits, though it’s unclear how effective it’s been in getting users away from the endless scroll (TikTok referred Protocol to its blog post when reached for comment). Dayna Geldwert, head of global policy programs at Instagram, acknowledged that it’s tricky to strike the right tone.

“How do we not compromise teens’ freedoms and autonomy?” Geldwert asked. “How do we not seem patronizing but actually express and communicate the value of turning something like this on?”

To do this, Geldwert chose creators who had already struck a chord with young people by talking about different aspects of mental health. Avoiding people who talked about these issues in an “overly earnest” or patronizing way was key, Geldwert told Protocol. If the creators succeed in getting teens to turn on “Take a Break,” the app will suggest alternate activities outside of social media.

But how authentic and genuine do “take a break” alerts feel when they’re coming from the app itself? Especially if the recipient is a contrarian teenager already dependent on said app? This dissonance might make it difficult for Instagram’s anti-Instagram messaging to land, said University of Wisconsin’s adolescent health expert Megan Moreno, referencing the Truth anti-smoking campaign.

“One of the really effective things about the Truth campaign is encouraging the teen to be a rebel by not falling in line with what the company’s telling you to do,” Moreno said. “It’s harder when the message comes from within.”

Anna Lembke, a psychiatry professor at Stanford, said some teens might be more drawn to the app after being told to take a break.

“They might help somewhat in people who aren’t already addicted, but I’m skeptical they’ll make much difference in those who are already struggling with a form of addiction to this digital content,” Lembke told Protocol. “Finding work-arounds may even add to their appeal, especially for young people, who like nothing more than to thwart authority.”

Consulting with young people themselves would help make these reminders effective, Moreno said (Instagram said it worked with teens, parents and external experts). Adolescents are the best judge of what type of humor or messaging works with their peers, she added.

Into the rabbit hole

But Instagram’s fiercest critics care most about the app’s algorithm feeding children harmful content, not about how much time children spend on the app. Irene Ly, policy counsel with Common Sense Media, wants to see Instagram committing to altering its algorithm and implementing stronger privacy controls by default. “Telling a child to take a break may shorten their time on the platform,” Ly said. “But it’s not going to help change what they’re seeing on the platform itself.”

This is the foundation of the various lawsuits filed last week, using the Facebook Papers to argue that the platform’s algorithms exacerbate mental health issues. They also take issue with Meta’s age verification process, letting kids under the age of 13 slip through the cracks.

“There’s concerns about the addictive nature of these platforms,” said Joseph VanZandt, lead attorney on the cases with Beasley Allen. “When you’re dealing with young people, you have to be incredibly careful with any product that you’re putting in front of them.”

Geldwert couldn’t comment directly on the lawsuits, but she cited Instagram’s 2019 efforts against cyberbullying as evidence of the company’s long commitment to youth safety. As for verifying account holders’ ages: “Under-13s are not allowed on Instagram, but they’re clever,” Geldwert said. Instagram has a set of AI tools that tries to detect accounts run by children, but as was the case in the Spence family’s suit against Meta, sometimes they’re easy to bypass.

As for concerns about the algorithm, Geldwert pointed to another one of Instagram’s updates: Teens will encounter nudges in Instagram Explore encouraging them to look at something new if they’ve been dwelling on any one topic for a long time. The new, suggested topic will exclude categories that are associated with “appearance comparison,” for example fitness or celebrity content. This type of “exit ramp” from a social media spiral could ease teenagers out of potentially toxic content, Moreno said. It’s a brand-new feature, so whether this will help users remains to be seen.

The pressure on Meta to implement stricter child protections will not subside anytime soon; both VanZandt and Matthew Bergman, who’s representing the Spence family, said more lawsuits are on their way. Lawmakers on both the state and federal level are pursuing legislation that might force social media companies to more strongly commit to keeping kids safe online. For now, will Instagram’s nudges be enough to pull teenagers out of the rabbit hole? Geldwert isn’t sure.

“It’s hard to make the argument and demonstrate the value proposition in a moment when a teen is already scrolling,” Geldwert said. “How can we support user education in-app, in the moment?”

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