October 5, 2021
- Social media use can lead to serious mental health problems, including sleep disturbances, depression and suicide.
- Internal research conducted by Facebook shows that its Instagram product can be particularly harmful, especially for young people.
- Senators from both parties have expressed concern about the harmful effects of social media on mental health, and the Commerce Committee is investigating Facebook's investigation.
Social media has transformed many people's lives in profound ways. Some of its effects have been positive, such as allowing friends and family to stay connected, increasing access to information, and allowing people to exercise their freedom of expression rights and participate in public discourse. But there are also dark sides to social media. The damage that social media can do to people's mental health, especially teenagers, is increasingly a concern for parents and policy makers. Research has shown that social media use can lead to sleepriots,depression,and suicidalthoughtsand actions.
social media companiesto useartificial intelligence to determine people's interests and desires, and then feed users content that fulfills those desires. Experts say this can be particularly problematic for teenagers, who may lack the self-discipline and maturity needed to stop watching content.
The search hassuggestedthat some people experience addiction to social media in a similar way to addiction to drugs and other substances. According to a British study, these include “neglect of personal life, mental preoccupation, escapism, mood-changing experiences, tolerance and concealment of addictive behavior”. People who stop using social media can alsoto appearsuffer psychological withdrawal symptoms, a common occurrence in drug and other addictions.
A studyfoundExcessive use of social media, especially features like “likes” and “comments,” can trigger the release of dopamine, sometimes called the “pleasure chemical,” similar to opioids or cocaine. Studies have also foundScrollingthrough a Facebook feed can produce reactions similar to those experienced through cocaine use or gambling. This addiction can have serious consequences. A decade-long studyfoundthat as the time teenagers spend on social media increases, so does their long-term risk of suicide.
A former Facebook executive, who left the company and does not allow his children to use social networks,these,“The short-term dopamine-driven feedback loops we create are destroying how society works.”
Internal company documents reported by the Wall Street JournalShowFacebook has been aware since at least 2018 of the harmful effects of some of its products, including the photo and video sharing app Instagram.
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Facebook research found that the nature and design of Instagram can be especially harmful to mental health. Users tend to only share the best moments of their lives, so a teenager watching other people's content might get the false feeling that everyone else's life is perfect. A teenager in a Facebook focus group reportedly told the company: “After seeing the photos on Instagram, I feel like I'm too big and not pretty enough. It makes me feel insecure about my body even though I know I'm thin.” If a teenager uses the site to look up workouts, she could be forever bombarded with pictures of what her body should look like. This can lead young people to develop eating disorders and depression. Senator Richard Blumenthal's team created an Instagram account posing as a 13-year-old girl to test this proposal. Theyfoundthat after following “easily findable” accounts associated with eating disorders, “within a day” the Instagram algorithm starts serving content that promotes eating disorders and self-harm. As Facebook's research stated, "Aspects of Instagram exacerbate each other to create a perfect storm."
Facebook's internal survey also found that teens were often aware of the negative effects of Instagram andwantedspend less time on the platform, but may not have been able to do so. A psychology professor quoted in the Wall Street Journal likened the damage to "clinical-grade depression." The documents also quoted a researcher who reported, “Teenagers told us that they don't like the amount of time they spend on the app, but they feel they need to be present. They often feel 'addicted' and know that what they are watching is bad for their mental health, but they feel unable to stop themselves."
some havecomparedFacebook's failure to divulge what it knew about its platforms' harmful effects on teen mental health to Big Tobacco hid what it knew about the harmful and addictive nature of cigarettes. As one researcher quoted in the Journal put it: “If you believe that R.J. Reynolds should have been more candid about the link between smoking and lung cancer, then you probably should believe that Facebook should be more open about the links to depression among girls. teenagers.”
These issues intersect with Federal Trade Commission antitrust legislation.lawsuitagainst Facebook. In antitrust law, consumer welfare is an important issuefactorto determine whether a monopoly is illegal. A benign monopoly does not violate antitrust law. But defending Facebook's market share could becommittedif the courts concluded that consumers are not benefiting, or even being harmed, by what Facebook does with its power.
Facebook has published several blog posts in response to the Journal's reporting. Ofirst,titled “What the Wall Street Journal Got Wrong” states that the stories contain “deliberate mischaracterizations” and “convey blatantly false motives to Facebook’s leadership and employees.” Otherpostfocuses on the steps Facebook has taken to improve security on its platforms, including efforts to combat misinformation and tools to help users track and manage how much time they spend on Facebook. Athirdpost states that, “contrary to The Wall Street Journal’s characterization, Instagram research shows that across 11 out of 12 wellness issues, teens who said they struggled with these tough issues also said that Instagram made them better at worst times”.
Facebook also publishedSlide deckon which much of the Journal reporting was based, along with “annotations” for each slide. The Journal has also published additional slideshows, includingonetitled “Body Image of Teenage Girls and Social Comparison on Instagram”. The presentation shows that Facebook's internal study found that "social comparison is worse on Instagram" than on other social media platforms like TikTok or Snapchat, and "66% of teenage girls on Instagram experience negative social comparison".
On September 27th, Facebookannouncedwas “on pause” on its plans to build an “Instagram Kids” to “work with parents, experts, policy makers and regulators, to listen to their concerns and demonstrate the value and importance of this project for today's online teens. ”
Senators Blumenthal and Marsha Blackburn, Chair and Senior Member of the Commerce Committee's Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Data Security Subcommittee,releasedan investigation into Facebook search. They wrote: “Facebook is of course unable to take responsibility. … When given the opportunity to enlighten us on its knowledge of Instagram's impact on young users, Facebook provided evasive responses that were misleading and covered up clear evidence of significant harm.”
The subcommittee held ahearingon Sept. 30, titled “Protecting Kids Online: Facebook, Instagram, and Mental Health Harm.” Senators on both sides of the aisle were highly critical of Facebook. Senator BlackburnaskedFacebook will disclose all of its internal searches. The company declined, claiming that some of the research was not relevant to the committee's investigation.
The subcommittee carried out a follow-uphearingon October 5 with testimony from Frances Haugen, thewhistleblowerwho provided the Journal with Facebook's internal research. Haugen is a former product manager at Facebook who worked on the Civic Integrity team ahead of the 2020 election. She advocated that outside researchers be allowed to examine Facebook's internal research and that the company move from "engagement-based ratings" to a system simpler and less algorithmically based to display content, such as chronologically. She also urged Congress to create an oversight body for social media companies.
On a subcommittee of the Judiciaryhearingon September 21, Senator Josh HawleyquestionedVice President of Privacy and Public Policy at Facebook regarding the safety of platforms such as Instagram for teenage users. The company declined to release its internal research to Congress and, when asked whether the platforms were safe for teens, said, "We're working hard to make that true." At the hearing, Senator Mike Lee criticized the company,sayingtheir behavior “demonstrates a reckless disregard for their consumers”.
A House subcommittee held ahearingon September 28, examining the ability of external researchers to access and analyze data from social media companies. Last year, citing privacy concerns, Facebookrevokedaccess to its platform by researchers at New York University. One of the NYU researchers testified at the hearing, andurgedCongress "to ensure that researchers, journalists and the public have access to the data we need to study online disinformation and build real solutions."