Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen testified before a Senate panel on Tuesday. The objective of the hearing was announced as “the protection of children online”.
“I think Facebook’s products are harming children,” she said in her opening statement, saying the documents she released proved that “Facebook’s profit optimization machine is generating money. self-harm and self-hatred – especially for vulnerable groups, such as adolescent girls. Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone noted on Twitter during the hearing that Haugen “has not worked on child safety or Instagram or researched these issues and has no direct knowledge of the subject matter of his work on Facebook.”
Researchers have worked for decades to uncover the relationship between adolescent media use and mental health. While there is some debate, they tend to agree that the evidence we’ve seen so far is complex, contradictory, and ultimately inconclusive. This is as true of Facebook’s internal marketing data, disclosed by Haugen, as it is of validated studies on the subject.
Opinion versus fact
The disclosed Facebook research consists of opinion polls and interviews. Facebook asked teens about their impressions of Instagram’s effect on their body image, mental health and other issues.
This addiction to self-report – the own opinions of adolescents – as the sole indicator of harm is a problem, says Candice Odgers, a psychologist who studies adolescence at the University of California, Irvine and the United States. ‘Duke University. This is because teens are already sensitized by media coverage and adult disapproval to believe that social media is bad for them.
Odgers was a co-author of a study conducted in 2015 and published in 2020 that found exactly that. “If you ask teenagers if they are addicted / hurt by social media or their phones, the vast majority say yes,” she told NPR. “But if you actually do the research and relate their use to objective measures… there is very little to no connection.” With the exception of a slight increase in behavior problems, his study found no real link between smartphone or social media use and several different measures of psychological distress and well-being. “At the population level,” the paper concludes, “there was little evidence that access and use of digital technology is negatively associated with the well-being of young adolescents.”
The Odgers article has been peer reviewed. It had 2,100 participants. This is just one of hundreds of studies published over the decades on media use and the well-being of children and adolescents. This research started with radio, has moved on to television, video games, and now social media. Along the way, large peer-reviewed studies have found few correlations. “It almost sucks,” says Odgers.
Facebook research was not peer reviewed or designed to be nationally representative, and some of the statistics that received the most attention were based on very small numbers.
According to Facebook’s own annotations on the leaked slides, the widely reported result as “30% of teenage girls thought Instagram made them feel worse in their bodies” was based on 150 respondents out of a few thousand Instagram users surveyed. . They only answered the question about Instagram’s role if they had previously reported having body image issues. Thus, the result does not describe a random sample of adolescent girls, or even all the girls in the survey. It is a subset of a subset of a subset.
In another of the Facebook surveys, of over 2,500 teenage Instagram users surveyed in the UK and US, a total of 16 respondents reported suicidal thoughts which they said started with Instagram. Because of the way this data was sliced and diced in Facebook’s internal slides, these 16 people, less than 1% of all respondents, became the ultimate source of stories that reported as 6% of teens in the US and 13% in the UK blamed Instagram. for suicidal thoughts.
Vicious and virtuous circles
Vicky Rideout is an independent researcher who has published over two dozen studies on youth and media use. She says it is “an unnecessary distraction” to compare the confrontation with Facebook to the confrontation against Big Tobacco, as the senators did in these hearings. This is for two reasons: because the evidence is nowhere near as strong, and because social media – unlike cigarettes – can be beneficial as well as harmful.
One of Rideout’s 2021 studies of adolescents, contrary to Facebook’s internal findings, used a nationally representative sample and used a recognized scale to measure depression. In his study, 43% of those surveyed said that using social media generally made them feel like they were better – no worse – when they are depressed, stressed or anxious. Less than half, 17%, said it generally made them feel worse. The others said it didn’t make any difference anyway.
Rideout research suggests there is a small group of severely depressed teens for whom social media has a bigger impact for better and for the worst. She thinks they should be the subject of future research.
Rideout and Odgers both say that rather than get stuck in an endless loop of catastrophic scrolling over inconclusive little results, the public conversation on social media and teens needs to move towards solutions. They would like to see companies like Facebook dedicate resources to designing and testing positive interventions.
Some ideas that researchers are currently investigating include: connecting young people with information about well-being or mental health; promote accounts that have been shown to make people feel better about themselves; or encouraging teens to talk to peers who are having a difficult day.
“There are really a lot of teenagers who suffer from depression, and they really use social media a lot, and social media really plays a disproportionate role in their lives,” says Rideout. “If there are concrete steps Instagram or any other social media company can take to uplift the positives and decrease the negatives of their platforms, this is something we should be supporting.”
Editor’s Note: Facebook is one of NPR’s financial backers and since the publication of his book, The Art of Screen Time, Kamenetz’s husband has accepted a job with Facebook. He works in an independent division.