Facebook “Has Known This Forever”

Facebook is soft-pedaling its own internal research about the effects of Instagram, and underestimating the severity of eating disorders, an expert says.

This article was originally published at Observer.com, where Marco is editor-in-chief.

 

n 1995, 15 years before founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger would obtain seed funding for the app that would become Instagram, a meta study of the mortality of anorexia nervosa was published in the Journal of American Psychiatry The findings were alarming. The study showed that the mortality rate associated with anorexia nervosa was more than 12 times higher than the annual death rate for females 15-24 years old in the general population, and the risk of suicide more than 200 times higher. In the decades that followed, more research was conducted. The conclusions were similar. Eating disorders including anorexia, bulimia, and EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified) were not only deadly, but had a range of mortality rates that, at the high end, were comparable to the abuse of cocaine. A meta study of all-cause mortality of mental disorders conducted in 2014 found that anorexia nervosa specifically was associated with a higher mortality rate than alcohol use disorder. Only opioid use was significantly more deadly.

It’s important to keep this context in mind when reading the internal Facebook research documents published by the Wall Street Journal on September 29.  In a presentation titled, “Teen Girls Body Image and Social Comparison on Instagram — An Exploratory Study in the US,” researchers at Facebook mapped out — in colorful diagrams and branded charts — the “downward spiral” that is both triggered and “exacerbated” by use of the Instagram platform. “Once in a spiral,” the document reads, “teens work through a series of emotions that in many ways mimic stages of grief.”

The stages of grief are presented as an ouroboros of brightly hued arrows pulled from the Instagram brand color palette. “Bargaining” is a deep royal purple. “Insecurity” is a lovely cornflower blue followed immediately by the bright kelly green of “Dysmorphia.” The result, according to Facebook, is that “aspects of Instagram exacerbate each other to create a perfect storm.”

What’s inside the storm? Facebook researchers concluded that “mental health outcomes related to this can be severe.” Below this headline, in bright red text, is a list of the outcomes. The first is “eating disorders.”

To say that explicitly connecting the use of a product to a category of disorders that have similar mortality rates to cocaine abuse is alarming would be an understatement. But eating disorders are primarily associated with — and disproportionately affect— women and girls. They are not treated with the same seriousness as substance use disorders. It is difficult to imagine a researcher at a tech company presenting a rainbow colored “downward spiral” that ends with amphetamine abuse before moving on to design recommendations that include implementing more “fun” photo filters and experimenting with “mindfulness breaks.”

Renee Engeln is a professor at Northwestern, where she runs the university’s Body and Media Lab. Engeln studies the same relationships between social media, mental health and body image that Facebook is addressing in the leaked report. I sent her the report and called shortly after.

“We’ve known all this forever,” she said immediately. “They’ve known this forever, too.”

She told me, based on viewing the report, that Facebook is underestimating the severity of eating disorders as well as how widespread eating disordered behavior is. At the same time, Engeln said Facebook was also missing the larger point — the effect that Instagram has on its users. “You don’t have to have an eating disorder for it to matter,” Engeln said. “When a whole generation of girls spends a significant amount of time hating what they see in a mirror, that’s a mental health issue, even if they don’t meet the diagnostic criteria for a mental disorder.”

Facebook claims that the leaked research has been mischaracterized by the Journal, and has responded by publishing and annotating two internal presentations about the toxicity of Instagram. “This type of research is designed to inform internal conversations and the documents were created for and used by people who understood the limitations of the research,” reads the update to a statement attributed to Pratiti Raychoudhury, Vice President, Head of Research for Instagram.

In a Senate hearing on September 30, Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut read from documents provided to his office by a whistleblower that contradicted Facebook’s soft-pedaling of its own internal research. “Substantial evidence suggests that experiences on Instagram or Facebook make body dissatisfaction worse, particularly viewing attractive images of others, viewing filtered images, posting selfies and viewing content with certain hashtags,” Blumenthal quoted.

Testifying at the same hearing, Facebook’s global head of safety Antigone Davis said that the company believes that Instagram helps more teens than it harms, but added that the research led to “numerous” changes that include “a dedicated reporting flow for eating disorder content.”

Engeln rejected Facebook’s argument that Instagram was sometimes a positive experience for young people. “The fact that the platform can provide positive and negative experiences isn’t interesting. That’s just typical. When I see people downplay a report like this, I want to know how many people produced the report. How many people were in the meeting when it was presented? I want you to add up all those hours, and how much those people are paid, and then tell me you didn’t think it was a big deal.”

Facebook has, in recent days, paused their initiative to develop “Instagram Kids,” a version of the app for users under 13. “This will give us time to work with parents, experts, policymakers and regulators, to listen to their concerns, and to demonstrate the value and importance of this project for younger teens online today,” wrote Adam Mosseri, Head of Instagram. 

Mental health experts were not called out specifically in Mosseri’s list. Whether or not Facebook’s internal research is accurate, the manner in which the conclusions were presented demonstrates an attitude that seems out of step with the seriousness of their findings. And there isn’t a lot of evidence to suggest that their internal researchers are either wrong or unqualified to study the problem.

“I know there are scientists working at Facebook and Instagram,” said Engeln, “We have people who’ve gotten PhDs from our department who work there. I know they have good scientists, so I know that they knew this stuff already.”

A study conducted by Engeln’s lab along with researchers from UCLA and the University of Oxford , showed that Instagram is potentially more uniquely harmful to self-image than Facebook’s other products.
Engeln and her team found that when study subjects used Instagram (but not Facebook) it led to a significant decrease in body satisfaction — in only seven minutes of use.

“They just messed around on their own Instagram account for seven minutes,” Engeln said. “And that was enough.”

I asked Engeln what social media companies could do to improve mental health outcomes for their users. She was not optimistic that Facebook would implement changes without intervention.

“I don’t trust social media companies to do anything to minimize the harm to young people. I think it is not in their best interest to do so. I think what they’re most interested in doing is minimizing harm to their reputation so that they can continue to make lots of money and garner lots of social influence and power. And I’m sorry if that’s obnoxious, but you can quote me on that.”

Meg Marco (@meghann on Twitter) is editor in chief at The Observer, published by New York-based Observer Media. This piece was originally published there.

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Instagram for Kids: Doomed from the Start

Will Facebook continue wading into the quagmire of children’s digital content or double down on the next generation gold rush – the metaverse?

Under intense scrutiny from lawmakers and childrens’ advocates, Facebook has, once again, reluctantly pivoted to a promise that it will listen first and act only after that. This week the company, which owns Instagram,  paused its controversial efforts to build an “Instagram for Kids” that would allow kids under 13 years of age to share photos and comments with each other providing they had parental permissions. Facebook said that the company is taking a timeout on Instagram for Kids because it is “the right thing to do”, adding that it would “work with parents, experts, and policymakers to demonstrate the value and need for this product.” (It made this decision after a devastatingly critical series of articles in The Wall Street Journal, with related follow-ons in The New York Times and Washington Post.)

Putting the Instagram for kids project on pause is a big concession for Facebook.  Those who give the company the benefit of the doubt will say this marks a big and thoughtful step from a company whose mantra has too often been “move fast and break things”. Harsher critics will say the embattled company will simply move on to more lucrative waters like its new infatuation with the metaverse in order to win the next generation of consumers. But whichever way it turns, Facebook has lost another round in its campaign to earn public trust.

Facebook’s Inability to Move into New Marketplaces

The company has a history of ill-timed rollouts as it struggles to remain the dominant social network and keep attracting new generations of users. For example, it abandoned and then downsized its 2019 plans to forge into the cryptocurrency space with its Libra token amidst public outcry.

Facebook Messenger for Kids, now available in the U.S., Canada, Peru, and Mexico, suffered serious public backlash when it was introduced in 2017, though it has operated mostly without incident since.  It is meant to be a safe way for parents to give children under 13 access to instant messaging. Anecdotal evidence suggests that despite creating a reasonable set of guardrails, most parents who tried the platform were either not tech-savvy enough or committed enough to use Messenger for Kids routinely. As we publish, Facebook is facing extensive inquiries from Congressional lawmakers, looking at everything from its role in vaccine misinformation to whether it contributed to the January 6th insurrection. A Senate hearing on September 30 found a Facebook safety official unable to convincingly reply to legislators from both parties with strong criticisms of how it manages Instagram.

Timing and Good Will

Is it Facebook’s missteps, timing, or lack of goodwill that makes its efforts to stake out the kids’ space so polarizing? Other video-sharing-based companies have carved a relatively smooth path to their walled gardens for kids, notably YouTube and TikTok.  While not perfect, YouTube for Kids makes it fairly straightforward for a parent to set up access to age-appropriate videos that have been vetted for appropriateness and are presented free of ads. And TikTok offers settings that provide additional safety and privacy features for kids under 13. Why does Facebook/Instagram get so much pushback? Timing is everything.

The conversation surrounding Instagram for Kids became much more frenzied when the Wall Street Journal released its series of reports called the Facebook Files. Based on a whistleblower’s internal documents and memos, one part of the expose reveals that Facebook has been, for quite some time, conducting numerous studies into how its photo-sharing app affects its millions of young users. The documents suggest it is well aware of Instagram’s potentially harmful effects, notably amongst teenage girls. Instagram can exacerbate negative body image issues, anxiety, depression, and even suicidal thoughts.

Facebook retaliated with a statement saying the WSJ document was taken out of context and that the data shows teens can benefit from photo-sharing sites. And the WSJ  has now published some of the documents, which do show plenty of positive effects for teens from Instagram. At the end of the day, it would be surprising if Facebook hadn’t done its research and identified the negatives. It shouldn’t come as a big surprise that Instagram might cause harm. Like most other social media products, the double-edged sword is omnipresent. The question is: What will Facebook do to mitigate the most toxic effects? In all the controversy, that question has not really been addressed by the company. And it certainly wasn’t answered on September 30 to the senators’ satisfaction.

All Hands on the Metaverse?

The “for kids digital content” market has always been a bear.  That’s even more true when the content is user-created and shared. From a revenue perspective, this market appears to be a losing proposition.  You can’t advertise to these kids, for example. Under COPPA laws you can’t gather any personal information. And kids don’t typically own credit cards to purchase things. Yet enterprising children everywhere seem to either cajole parents to release the purse strings or figure workarounds, because they’re more tech-savvy than their parents. I’ve long thought that kids are so important to the future of the Internet that it might be wiser to create a nationally-funded effort — a sort of PBS of the Internet — where kids’ safety was paramount.

Moving forward, it’s clear that Facebook is in the hot seat for Instagram for Kids, and just generally more subject to strong criticism than when it purchased Instagram in 2012. It was initially run more independently, until its two founders, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, left in late 2018. Adam Mosseri, the longtime Facebook executive who is the latest CEO of Instagram, has vociferously defended the company’s decision to put the kids project on pause.

At the same time, Andrew Bosworth, Facebook’s newly appointed CTO, has been super-vocal on a related matter, cheerleading Facebook’s newest mission to become a metaverse company. And maybe that’s the direction Facebook/Instagram will move toward, as it plows millions of dollars into a campaign to build a socially-responsible metaverse while rebranding itself from a social media company to a metaverse one. It’s a bold, long-visioned play, even though Facebook is a relative latecomer to the metaverse. (The Washington Post, however, portrays the metaverse pivot as partly a head fake that aims to distract regulators and legislators from the company’s separate mistakes.)

Facebook’s past, the current Instagram Kids media coverage, and future metaverse issues are more closely tied than you might think. The question is whether Facebook will continue wading into the current quagmire of children’s digital content or double down and focus on the next generation gold rush — for kids who will inevitably be active in the metaverse. (Read a Techonomy summary of that trend here.) I think it would be best for the company to adopt a “tech-Darwinism” view that they’ll make more money reaching out to kids where they’ll be tomorrow, and ditch Instagram for Kids entirely.

Extra credit: Watch this recent Atlantic Interview with Andrew Bosworth to understand the company’s ambitious metaverse plans.

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Spiritual Opium: China Limits Kids’ Online Gaming Time

Chinese officials unveiled tough new limits on the amount of time its young people can spend playing video games, calling them “opium for the mind.“  Let the experiment begin.

It’s been said that to really understand China you need to understand the Opium Wars. China lost face and power as the British and other foreigners sought unfettered access to its trade goods.

Somehow it’s fitting that this week Chinese party officials unveiled tough new limits on the amount of time its young people can spend playing online games. A state-owned media outlet published a piece that called video games “opium for the mind.“  (The statement caused stock prices of Chinese gaming companies like Tencent to plummet and the comment was removed shortly after it was released.) Elsewhere, the state-run Xinhua News Agency described the new online gaming rules as an effort to “protect the physical and mental health of minors”.

The ban may seem draconian, but honestly it’s the kind of intervention even many American parents secretly dream about. It applies to online gaming only (gaming consoles and playing alone are harder to regulate). Under the new regulation, online video game play for people under 18 is limited to three evening hours only on weekends and public holidays. No gaming is allowed during the school week. Online gaming companies must connect to an “antiaddiction” system operated by the government that will require users to register using their real names.

Adam Naijberg, Head of Communications for Tencent Games, offered me this somewhat generic, but important statement indicating that the company will help enforce the national mandate:  “Since 2017, Tencent has explored and applied various new technologies and functions for the protection of minors. That will continue, as Tencent strictly abides by and actively implements the latest requirements from Chinese authorities.” Najerg also says that kids make up a very small portion of its overall audience. “During the second quarter of 2021, players aged under 16 accounted for 2.6% of our China game grossing receipts. Among which, players aged under 12 accounted for 0.3%,” he told me over a messaging thread.

There’s no doubt China has been aggressive and masterful at inserting itself into the private lives and private enterprises of its country. Many say this is a continuation of President Xi Jinping’s move to reassert control over the economy. Others say it is a continuation of earlier moves this month to curb Chinese youth’s growing preoccupation with fandom. I spoke to a young colleague I’ve worked with in China, who confirmed that “it’s not only gaming, but the whole tech industry in China that is experiencing unfavorable policies at the moment.” She added that EdTech and gaming are the most outstanding examples right now, because Chinese are both strident and risk-averse in their approach to education.

Are Video Games Good for Kids?

Politics aside, this is a fascinating setup for an experiment on the detrimental or beneficial effects of video gaming with worldwide implications. There’s plenty of fuel to feed either side of the debate about how bad they are, from academicians, social scientists, parents, and educators. Scholars, says Chris Ferguson in this New York Daily News piece on the Chinese ban, are split on whether video game addiction “is real or just a moral panic.“ Pew Research suggests that American parents are equally concerned about their kids’ screen time and online gaming, with two-thirds of them saying screens make child-rearing more difficult.

Scientists have extensively examined the neuropsychological effects of playing games. Dopamine and serotonin give players a sort of high (and craving) as they play, similar to other thrilling or addicting behaviors. The good news is that your brain grows healthier and you feel good while it’s stimulated and engaged. The bad news is that you develop cravings for more of something that makes you feel that good. Research into the adolescent brain indicates that their neurotransmital systems are not fully developed yet, so their reactions to dopamine may be intensified (hence adolescent risk-taking behaviors). Here’s a good book on the subject.

Are Video Games Essential Learning Tools

Underlying the debate about kids screen time is the equally important discussion of what skills students will need to be prepared for today’s online, global and digital-first economy. In its Portrait of a Graduate (pictured above), the Battelle for Kids, a not-for-profit, forward-thinking educational reform group talks about the skills required for a 21st-century job market.  Many of those skills — collaboration, critical thinking outside the box, problem-solving are precisely the kinds of skills that online video games foster.

Susanna Pollack, President of Games For Change, a well respected organization for empowering gaming creators, says “China’s decision to restrict video game play for kids under 18 is at odds with decades worth of research around video games, youth development, and learning, as well as recent trends in educational gaming. It’s no surprise that during the COVID-19 crisis, teachers have increasingly been using popular games like Roblox and Minecraft to support the transition to remote learning and teach important skills and concepts. Video games, regardless of whether or not they are purpose-built for the classroom, offer online spaces where students can learn skills that are critical for the 21st century workforce — like collaboration, communication, critical-thinking, and problem-solving.”

Finally, there’s the issue of intrinsic vs. extrinsic control of the use of video games. At what age should a student begin to foster their own internal clock about overuse of online?  Will Chinese regulatory efforts be internalized by kids as they enter adulthood, or will they turn 18 and get drunk on video games once they’re freed from regulation?

Pollack report that “less than 1 percent of video game players exhibit characteristics of addiction, and none of these players experienced any negative outcomes related to addiction, according to a large-scale study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry. By imposing harsh limits to curb video game addiction she says, “China is responding to a problem that may not even exist — and keeping young people away from powerful tools that can set them up for success in the workforce of the future.”

Let the experiment begin.

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