Opinion: It’s time for social networks to take a close look in the mirror

“We … ban the type of content that glorifies or promotes such issues as eating disorders,” said Leslie Miller, CEO of YouTube.
But external data suggests that they have not completely succeeded in banning such posts. The New York Times recently reported that some hashtags about eating disorders have received more than 70 million views on social media.
The testimony was the first time representatives from TikTok and Snap, Snapchat’s parent company, had been called before the Senate. But it’s unlikely to be the latter, as the tech industry – and in particular, Facebook and Instagram – faces mounting scrutiny over its impact on young users. And for good reason. They need to do more to protect teens’ mental health.
Last month, the Wall Street Journal highlighted an internal research conducted by Instagram’s parent company, Facebook, which showed that “32% of teenage girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel bad.” Then, in testimony before the Senate earlier this month, former Facebook employee Francis Haugen — who leaked the documents — argued that Facebook was hiding evidence that its products were making teens feel bad about themselves. On Monday, redacted versions of documents leaked by Haugen were made available to 17 US news outlets, including CNN.
In an earnings call on Monday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg called the disclosures misleading. “Good-faith criticism helps us improve, but my view is that we are seeing a coordinated effort to selectively use leaked documents to paint a wrong picture of our company,” he said. “The truth is that we have an open culture that encourages discussion and research about our work so that we can make progress on many complex issues that are not just our own.”

Zuckerberg is right that the research on how social media affects teens is complex. But the way Facebook and Instagram deal with teens’ mental health challenges is very wrong.

It is true that we cannot definitively blame social media for causing teens to have negative body images. Experts noted that a Facebook survey that found a third of girls saying Instagram makes them feel bad about their bodies had a small sample size of them and relied on self-reporting, which is often unreliable. In other research, some teens say social media helps them feel better when they’re stressed or anxious.
But senators have good reason to ask these questions. Research shows that teens with more social media accounts are more likely to have disordered eating behaviors, although this still hasn’t been able to prove that the problems are caused by social media use.
Here’s what’s clear. First, we have to understand what social media is doing to teens. A 2019 report by Common Sense Media found that the average teen spends nearly five hours a day on screens for entertainment — not including the time they spend on screens doing homework — while the average teen spends more than seven hours. And that was before the pandemic drove more of their lives online! What’s more, 50% of teenage girls (plus 39% of teenage boys) say they’re online nearly constantly, according to the Pew Center.

It is essential to understand what is happening to their brains during all this time. Congress should allocate funding for rigorous research to answer the question.

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Second, today’s teens aren’t doing well. During the pandemic, when teens were spending more time online, there was a 40% rise in calls to the National Eating Disorders Association’s helpline, and 35% of callers were between the ages of 13 and 17. Between 2007-2017, rates of teen depression rose 60%, according to the Pew Center. (This is, of course, around the same time that platforms like Instagram and Snapchat took off.)

Since teens spend so much of their time online, social networks have a social responsibility to help.

There are two big things they can do. First, they have to remove the label of harmful content – such as so-called “inspiration” or “thinspo” posts that appear to be practically designed to harm images of girls’ bodies. Instead, they should amplify content that encourages body positivity. These are complex things, and algorithms cannot analyze healthy content from harmful content based on keywords alone. Instead, Facebook should hire more content moderators who are experts in the field — such as child psychologists — who can identify and prioritize positive content.

In September, we learned that Facebook plans to inflate content that makes itself look good. There is no excuse not to do the same with substances that can make a difference to the mental health of vulnerable young people.
Second, social networks must include a symbol or other tag to report when the images on their platforms have been manipulated with tools that users often use to make themselves look unrealistically thin and make them appear to conform to traditional beauty standards. This can help vulnerable young users – who, as I noted before, are often left unhappy after comparing themselves to others on social media – when they realize that much of what they see simply isn’t real.

It’s time for social networks to take a closer look in the mirror to check if and how they affect teens’ mental health. Simple claims that they ban publications that glorify eating disorders are not enough. With young people spending an astonishing amount of their lives online, this question also needs to be investigated urgently by independent researchers.

Regardless of whether they are to blame, social networks can — and should — take action to help teens with devastating mental health challenges gain a better perspective by promoting healthy content — and remind them when they don’t see much. t realistic. That would give legislators, teens, and parents a lot of likeability on social media.


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