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I recently sat down to watch Frances Haugen’s three-hour testimony on Facebook in front of Congress. The event was surprisingly gripping—she very obviously knows her stuff and, as a data engineer, algorithmic scientist, and former product manager at the company, was not afraid to dig deep into the addictive algorithms that run Facebook and Instagram (which are, of course, both operated by the same company).
One line stuck out to me: In talking about the addictive nature of the photo-sharing platform, Haugen mentioned offhandly that “Instagram is about bodies and comparing lifestyles.”
I’ve kept this in mind in the weeks since, including when I’m on Instagram. Now when using the app, I’m struck by the number of updates I see about the two topics. Scanning my personalized Explore tab, there are images of people far fitter than I am, pictures and clips of strangers living it up around the world (half of which seem to take place next to a waterfall?), and fancy products I might want to buy someday. But when I really think about it, my life is just fine and yours probably is too. We don’t need some personalized Google Images-on-steroids to tell us differently. There are almost 8 billion people in the world. Someone is always going to be living it up somewhere.
What strikes me most about Haugen’s comment about bodies and lifestyles is how it gets to the core of human instinct and insecurity. We all want to look good for others and feel as though we’re living a happy, fulfilling life. Apps programmed to show content from people who look attractive or better off makes us feel inadequate—even though our lives have not changed in the slightest. We’re doing just fine.
It could be said that apps like Instagram are addictive in large part because they breed these feelings of inadequacy. They create what I’ve started to think of as an “inadequacy loop.” When we continually look at pictures and videos of people who are richer and fitter than we are, we feel compelled to post updates about our own life and seek the validation of others. We also modify our behavior to feel better about ourselves after. According to Haugen, this sadly affects teenage girls the most: in a recent interview, she described how Instagram’s algorithm shamelessly targets this group with eating disorder content because it leads them to spend more time in the app.1 It’s all about engagement.
The ways in which Facebook’s algorithms fuel this inadequacy loop are deeply disturbing and alarming. The company has pursued profit over connection; user engagement over mental health; growth over safety. But despite these practices, we remain hooked because the content we’re shown caters to our base impulses.
With some awareness, we can break this cycle. When (or if!) you spend time on Instagram, remember that the app is programmed to show you content that your instinctual mind craves.
This content might keep you scrolling but it’s junk food for your brain and detrimental to your overall mental well-being. Once you understand the psychology behind it—that the company is hijacking your attention to make more money—the whole charade feels kind of… weird. Not to mention gross. Facebook is trying to take advantage of the way your mind is programmed for the purpose of optimizing their company around engagement and profit.
Luckily, we have a choice.