Facebook is in the hot seat again.
The Wall Street Journal this week published a powerful multi-part series on the company, drawing on internal documents on everything from the company’s secret practice of whitelisting celebrities it knows about. ‘Instagram is taking a heavy toll on teenage mental health.
The flurry of investigative articles make it clear that what Facebook says in public doesn’t always reflect the company’s knowledge of known issues behind the scenes. The revelations have still managed to shock even if Facebook is silent on the various social evils it has sown for years. (Remember when Mark Zuckerberg dismissed the idea that Facebook influenced the 2016 election as “crazy?”).
That’s fine until someone gets their hands on internal research.
One of the biggest revelations from the WSJ report: Society knows Instagram poses serious dangers to teenage mental health. A 2019 internal research slide acknowledged that ‘we’re making body image problems worse for one in three teenage girls’ – a shocking admission for a company moving forward with plans to expand to even younger age groups and more vulnerable.
As recently as May, Instagram’s Adam Mosseri dismissed concerns about the app’s negative impact on teens as “quite weak.”
But internally, the photo told a different story. According to the WSJ, from 2019 to 2021, the company conducted an in-depth study of adolescent mental health, including online surveys, journal studies, focus groups and large-scale questionnaires.
According to an internal slide, the results showed that 32% of teenage girls said Instagram made them look worse. Among research participants who had suicidal thoughts, 13% of UK teens and 6% of US teens directly linked their interest in suicide to Instagram.
“Teens blame Instagram for increasing rates of anxiety and depression,” another internal slide said. “This reaction was spontaneous and consistent across all groups. “
Following the WSJ report, Senators Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) announced an investigation into Facebook’s lack of transparency regarding internal research showing Instagram poses a serious danger and even deadly for teenagers. The Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Data Security will launch the investigation.
“We are in contact with a Facebook whistleblower and will use all resources at our disposal to investigate what Facebook knew and when they knew – including finding additional documents and pursuing testimony,” said writes Senators Blackburn and Blumenthal. “The Wall Street Journal’s hit stories may be just the tip of the iceberg.”
Blackburn and Blumenthal weren’t the only US lawmakers alarmed by the new report. Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL) and Lori Trahan (D-MA) sent their own letter to Facebook demanding that the company abandon its plans to launch Instagram for children. “Children and adolescents are particularly vulnerable populations online, and these findings paint a clear and devastating picture of Instagram as an app that poses a significant threat to the well-being of young people,” the lawmakers wrote.
In May, a group of 44 state attorneys general wrote to Instagram to encourage the company to abandon its plan to offer Instagram to children under 13. “It seems that Facebook is not fulfilling a need, but creating one, as this platform is primarily aimed at children who do not have or do not have an Instagram account,” wrote the group of attorneys general. . They warned that an Instagram for children would be “harmful for a myriad of reasons.”
In April, a group of the same Democratic lawmakers expressed “serious concerns” about Instagram’s potential impact on the well-being of young users. That same month, a coalition of consumer organizations also called on the company to reconsider launching a version of Instagram for children.
According to documents obtained by the WSJ, all of these concerns seem extremely valid. Despite extensive internal research and their deeply troubling findings, Facebook has publicly downplayed its knowledge, even though regulators have regularly pressured the company for what it really knows.
Instagram’s Mosseri may have made matters worse on Thursday when he made a less than flattering toll analogy between social media platforms and vehicles. “We know more people die than they would otherwise from car accidents, but overall, cars create a lot more value in the world than they destroy,” Mosseri told Peter Kafka on the Recode media podcast. “And I think social media is similar.”
Mosseri rejected any comparison between social media and drugs or cigarettes despite the well-documented addictive effects of social media, instead comparing social platforms to the auto industry. Understandably, the company’s many critics have jumped on the comparison of cars, pointing to their widespread lethality and the fact that the auto industry is heavily regulated, unlike social media.