“Instagram’s algorithm makes me feel like I’m not good enough. It doesn’t have to be like this.”
Those are the words of a group of teenagers who have called on the Government to regulate social media and to protect young people from being targeted by “damaging” content.
On Wednesday, a group of about 10 young people staged a protest outside the European headquarters of Meta, previously known as Facebook, in Dublin, wearing masks designed to resemble the filters used on photos on social media platforms. One demonstrator stood inside a metal cage, holding two balls and chains, to symbolise that she feels trapped by platforms such as Facebook and its sister site, Instagram.
The protest came after former Facebook employee Frances Haugen revealed internal research illustrating awareness that the company's algorithm worsened the mental and physical wellbeing of young girls.
The group, which was led by the Uplift campaigning community, then proceeded to Leinster House, where they delivered an open letter to officials from the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media.
In the open letter to Minister for Media Catherine Martin, the campaigners said Facebook “knowingly stood by while their platform caused untold damage to the mental and physical wellbeing of young girls.
“As the European home for Facebook, there is an onus on you to hold them accountable,” they said.
They called on Ms Martin to order Facebook executives to appear before an Oireachtas committee and to commit to "stronger" rules and laws through the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill.
‘Keep young people safe’
Speaking at the demonstration, Meghan Brown (15) said she wanted to "help keep young people safe and to put pressure on sites like Facebook to make it a safe place for young people".
Meghan said a lot of her friends in primary school had social media and were exposed to advertisements for make-up, plastic surgery and diet pills.
“At that young of an age, they were all talking about their weight and body image when going to school discos. That’s what we want to fix,” she said.
Niamh Toolen (15) said she wanted children to be protected when they were online.
“I’m very lucky in that I’ve been able to break out of the cycle, but as a kid my body image was very warped. I wasn’t very sure what I looked like and I was very insecure,” she said.
“There’s a problem with Photoshop. But what affected me a lot was skinny models or people I looked up to selling were weight-loss teas and they profited off my insecurity. I would spend hours and hours getting dressed because I didn’t know what to do and didn’t want to be seen really.”
Dorothy-Ann Vandergult (13) said teenagers were fed “unrealistic images of how we should look”.
“Facebook should be protecting us, not pushing this stuff at us.”
A spokeswoman for Meta said the company had “never allowed” content that promotes or encourages suicide, self-harm or eating disorders, adding that in the last few years the company updated its policies to “ban even more content”.
“Experts tell us social media can play an important role in destigmatising mental health, by giving people a place to talk about their experiences and find support. That’s why we do allow people to discuss these issues, though we aim not to recommend this type of content. We’ll keep working with experts around the world so we can continue to strike this important balance,” she said.
The spokeswoman added the company agreed there was a need for regulation on the internet.
“Rules established through a democratic process could add more legitimacy and trust than rules defined by companies like ours alone, and we have long called for the regulation of online content,” she added.
A spokesman for Ms Martin said she is progressing “as a matter of urgency” the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill, which “will end the era of self-regulation in online safety”.
“The Bill will, among other things, establish an Online Safety Commissioner, with robust powers and sanction, including fines of up to €20 million,” he said.
“The Commissioner will enforce binding online safety codes. These include seeking to reduce harmful online content, including cyberbullying, material promoting eating disorders and self-harm or suicide.”
“The Minister is aware of concerns regarding the effects of certain image focused social media platforms and has offered to meet the group,” the spokesman added.
If you are affected by anything in this article there is a range of support groups available, including Childline at freephone 1800 666 666, youth mental health charity Jigsaw at jigsaw.ie and Bodywhys, the National Eating Disorders Association of Ireland, whose helpline is 1890 200 444