Mark Zuckerberg participated in the ritual of ranking girls too. When he was experimenting before building Facebook, as a student at Harvard, he put his female classmates’ photos on his now-notorious “Facemash” website, where students could rank and compare the students’ headshots based on how hot they were. He wrote at the time, “I almost want to put some of these faces next to pictures of farm animals and have people vote on which is more attractive.”
For girls now, things have changed. They’re largely worse. Social media platforms such as Instagram feel like algorithmic free-for-alls, full of images of people who have altered how they look, whether by using online filters or in real life, with dieting, surgery or both. In the feed, influencers’ and celebrities’ photos are interspersed with photos of your friends and yourself. Now any photo is subject to scrutiny, comparison and assessment in the form of “likes” and comments.
To some extent, the way these dynamics play out on Instagram is just a natural extension of how girls are treated in our culture anyway. The body positivity movement may have helped, but girls still internalize the message that part of their success in life will rest upon their ability to be admired for their appearance. Instagram measures and gamifies that — creating a virtual high school cafeteria as global as the “explore” button, one that’s peopled by countless unreal bodies. (Adults aren’t exempt — they are more likely to consider plastic surgery if they frequently use image-heavy social media platforms like Instagram.)
Many of these messages are conveyed under the guise of health or wellness, but Facebook’s leaked research suggests that this charade does less to promote health than to damage it. No school health class or parental reassurance is a match for the might of these powerful tech platforms, combined with entire industries that prey on girls’ insecurities. Girls themselves often know Instagram is not good for them, but they keep coming back.
That’s because social media is addictive. Writing in The Atlantic, Derek Thompson called it “attention alcohol,” explaining, “Like booze, social media seems to offer an intoxicating cocktail of dopamine, disorientation, and, for some, dependency.” We are supposed to protect minors from products like this, not dish it out.
For his part, Mr. Zuckerberg isn’t ranking girls in public anymore. Instead, he is the father of daughters. Citing his perspective as a parent, Mr. Zuckerberg pledged in his Facebook post his commitment to continuing to research and to prioritize the welfare of children, framing their exposure to his products as inevitable. “The reality is that young people use technology,” he wrote. “Rather than ignoring this, technology companies should build experiences that meet their needs while also keeping them safe.”
But more telling than what Silicon Valley parents say is what they do. Many of them have long known that technology can be harmful: that’s why they’ve often banned their own children from using it. Other parents and regulators should consider following their lead.