Last week, I wrote a post on Instagram, teens, and body image after the Wall Street Journal released the “Facebook Files” online. Since then whistleblower Frances Haugen testified in front of a Senate subcommittee focused on protecting kids online. Her testimony provided a powerful and courageous glimpse into the business decisions and practices at Facebook, one of the world’s most powerful and influential tech companies.
Of course the policy and regulatory implications of Haugen’s testimony remain to be seen. This may mark a moment where we start to hold large tech companies accountable for amplifying divisive content and misinformation for profit. This may ignite a collective conversation about what it would actually take to design positive digital ecosystems for young people. It is more clear by the day that both of these goals are well worth our collective efforts.
In the meantime, we are still parenting. For those of us weary of years of conflicting headlines and contradictory advice about social media and mental health, does this mean that clarity is finally here? Is the official verdict finally in?
No, the Facebook files don’t expose definitive proof about teens and screens.
Many politicians and pundits are representing the internal data from Facebook as the “conclusive evidence” we’ve been waiting for. The news cycle is likely to continue churning out headlines declaring that social media is toxic to teens. But the reality is – perhaps frustratingly – not that simple. Among many methodological challenges, the leaked data about Instagram’s impact was drawn from a relatively small and non-representative sample and relied on self-reporting. Anya Kamenetz, author of the book The Art of Screen Time, outlines some of the reasons that Facebook’s internal marketing data alone should not drive our parenting or policy responses.
Fortunately for us, researchers have been studying social media’s impact on mental health. The reality is that the current evidence is far less conclusive and more nuanced than headlines suggest. To be clear, there are elements of Instagram in particular that prime teens for social comparison – for better and for worse depending upon the teen and their feed. And building on years of research on “traditional” mainstream media like television and movies, we know that consuming a steady diet of content that adheres to narrow beauty standards can negatively impact body image and behavior.
In terms of the impact of social media use more broadly though, the best data are generally unable to support fears that it causes dramatic declines in mental well-being. Does this mean that we should all mindlessly return to our scroll? Not necessarily. Instead, studies point to divergent outcomes worth paying attention to and highlight risks, vulnerabilities, strengths, and opportunities that should inform our path forward. Designing platforms to support vulnerable subgroups and learning about digital health practices among teens may actually benefit us all.
The Facebook Files do expose corporate priorities. They aren’t pretty.
Just because the internal data on Instagram and teen girls don’t meet the standards of scientific research, doesn’t mean there aren’t real reasons for concern. I am certainly not interested in being a Facebook apologist. The past five years alone have exposed plenty of abhorrent corporate practices. The leaked files say a lot about the ways in which these platforms consistently prioritize profit over the specific needs of teens. Plus leadership decisions that amplify polarization, harmful content, misinformation, and hate deserve public scrutiny.
Simply trusting large corporations to do what’s best for kids and/or focusing solely on individual habit change is inadequate in the face of Facebook’s budget and priorities. Instead, we can and should advocate for systems solutions. Indeed, teens benefit when we engage them in the current conversation about platform accountability. We can:
- Encourage them to “follow the money” and explore the ways that our likes, friendships, and shares fuel a commercial digital ecosystem.
- Activate awareness about how the business model depends upon our time and attention.
- Explain that outside pressure can work to create change even in powerful industries.
- Ask how they might redesign platforms to support mental health, affirm identities, and build community.
This isn’t about letting Facebook off the hook.
So why even point out that Facebook’s data on mental health isn’t final proof of its toxicity to young people? Isn’t that just giving them fuel for their PR campaigns in the wake of Haugen’s testimony?
Maybe a little. But extrapolating from flimsy data makes things confusing for parents and policy makers alike. It also oversimplifies what young people actually need from adults and communities to support their mental health.
For example, we don’t want to ignore the well documented positive and protective role of some social media habits. As researcher Vicky Rideout notes, unlike tobacco, social media actually has mixed impacts on its users. Understanding when and how specific social media habits help and when they hurt different teenagers is essential. We also want to guard against pointing fingers at single apps at the expense of attending to the multiple forces at play that influence our kids’ mental health including psychological vulnerabilities, trauma, stress, racism, or isolation.
Teens need us on their team.
This is a powerful moment in history. We spend an enormous amount of our time and attention tethered to very powerful devices. They have the possibility to bring us closer together or drive us apart. This is true both for our democracy and for our families. Let’s use this moment to continue exposing perverse corporate priorities. Let’s build public will to demand platforms that center children’s rights and wellbeing. Let’s parent for digital wellbeing at home.
But in our haste to create change let’s not forget to prioritize the biggest protective factor we can provide our kids as their digital worlds expand: to look up from our devices, turn towards them with care and curiosity, and identify together concrete steps we can take to create digital spaces that are better for everyone. They might already have some really good ideas we can build on.