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Brian Galla wants to help your teen kick their Instagram habit

  • Health and Wellness
  • Innovation and Research
  • Department of Psychology in Education
  • School of Education

The last few weeks have been a drumbeat of revelations about the potentially harmful effects social media has on teens and the lengths Facebook has gone to expand and retain its younger audience.

I believe Facebook's products harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy,” whistleblower and former Facebook employee Frances Haugan told a Senate committee on Oct. 5.

While politicians and tech executives debate the future of the social media, a more immediate question remains: How can we help teens cut back?

One solution, according to University of Pittsburgh research, is to appeal to the same sense of rebellion that makes them so hard to sway in the first place.

“Teens value making their own choices, they value freedom in deciding how to think and feel and act,” said Brian Galla, an associate professor of applied developmental psychology in Pitt’s School of Education. “What we’re trying to do, instead of working against that, is to harness it.”

There’s a standard approach to these kinds of conversations, one that’s familiar to any former D.A.R.E. student: Tell kids the long-term negative effects of a behavior and explain why it’s a bad idea. Only, that method hasn’t worked.

“Part of it is that they’re just being told information that they already know. And that feels disrespectful,” Galla said. “There’s this misperception that adolescents don’t understand future consequences. They can reason about the future as well as adults can.”

Another, he added, is that these behaviors are usually social. If all your friends are on Instagram, it’s hard to log off, even if you know you’ll regret it when you look up from your phone three hours later.

Rather than focusing on potential harms, Galla’s team wanted to test a way of convincing teens that was based on values, drawing from a line of efforts going back to an iconic 1990s anti-tobacco campaign that revealed information about Big Tobacco advertising.  

The research team worked with over 2,000 high school students, having them read two different kinds of material about social media and then taking surveys in the months following. One presented the possible benefits of avoiding social media in the long term, and the second described the psychological hacks that social media companies use to keep people engaged, from endless scrolling to the slot-machine-like feel of refreshing a feed.

The latter also described cutting back on social media as being part of a social movement: “By reclaiming control of your social media use, you can fight back and prompt companies to create systems that are more humane, that have the well-being of other people in mind,” Galla said, describing the text.

After the experiment, the team found, teens who read the second set of materials were more motivated to cut back on their use of social media, both compared to the traditional approach and to teens who didn’t read any messaging. Three months later, they were still more aware of the tricks social media companies use to lure them in. And girls also reported spending less time on the platforms compared to girls who didn’t read any messaging. The team published their results in the journal Child Development earlier this year.

For Galla, it makes sense that girls were more responsive to the material. “Social media has a much greater role in the lives of teenage girls than it does for teenage boys,” he said. It stands to reason that they might be more concerned about how social media companies are controlling their behavior.

That said, there’s still lots to learn about what teens will respond to the most. And cutting back isn’t the only way to cultivate a better relationship with social media. Galla himself plans to apply the same approach to a more nuanced question in future research.

“What I have become far more excited about is that the quality of use, rather than the quantity of use,” he said. “Can we help teens maximize social media use that is connected to their goals and their values and minimize use that they feel is stressful or regrettable?”

It’s not an easy battle. In one corner you have the distillation of years of work by psychologists, marketers and designers, all packed into a product designed to grab our attention and hold it as long as possible. In the other corner is a teenager who just wants to chat with their friends.

The match is rigged, but Galla is giving parents and educators the tools to help teens fight back: Now they have some psychology of their own.


— Patrick Monahan