‘The Facebook Files’: The Many Faces of Social Media Reveal a Harmful Side
Leaked files by a former Facebook manager show the social-media giant's complete disregard for the emotional welfare of some of its most fragile users.
Isabel Schweitzer was enjoying a day with her family this past Fourth of July. That suddenly changed, after the 16-year-old from Bismarck, North Dakota, logged onto her Instagram account.
“Seeing people that I thought were my friends having fun together, but they didn’t invite me, made me feel bad,” she told the Register. “I took it out on my family,” she said, explaining that she thought she was left out because of her mom’s way of raising her.
Schweitzer said she has stepped away from social media recently, realizing that it was taking an emotional toll on her — inviting her to compare her looks and activities with what she saw on her phone screen and making her feel worse about herself.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg could have told her that. He has known for a long time that “[c]omparisons on Instagram can change how young women view and describe themselves,” according to his own company’s research. The Wall Street Journal, citing internal information obtained from Facebook’s employee message board, reported that researchers for Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, stated in one data point in 2019, “We make body-image issues worse for one in three teen girls.”
Frances Haugen, former Facebook product manager for civic misinformation, provided similar evidence when she testified before the Senate Consumer Protection Subcommittee Oct. 5, leaking documents from Facebook’s own research showing that Instagram — the photo-sharing app owned by Facebook — decreased mental health among young users. The hearing was titled, “Protecting Kids Online: Testimony From a Facebook Whistleblower.”
There have been Facebook and other social-media company whistleblowers in the past, but this one is unprecedented, due to the tens of thousands of pages of internal research company documents that the data scientist secretly copied before leaving her job in Facebook’s civic integrity unit. The documents expose Facebook’s awareness that social media amplifies hate, political unrest and misinformation and harms teen girls.
For instance, in-house studies show that Instagram increased eating disorders and suicidal thoughts. One study found that 13.5% of teen girls said Instagram makes thoughts of suicide worse, and 17% said it makes eating disorders worse.
The Wall Street Journal reported that another Facebook study, of teens in the U.S. and the U.K., found more than 40% of Instagram users who reported feeling “unattractive” said these feelings began on the app; about a quarter of the teenagers who reported feeling “not good enough” said it started on Instagram.
Despite Facebook consistently downplaying its app’s negative effects, including previous comments to Congress, Haugen explained that Zuckerberg created an algorithm in 2018 designed to stop declining engagement among teens.
According to documents published by The Wall Street Journal, staffers warned Zuckerberg that his objective to improve users’ well-being by fostering interactions between friends and family was having the opposite effect. Zuckerberg ignored their alternative suggestions, worried they would lead to less interaction.
Zuckerberg has committed to correcting Facebook’s errors in comments during previous congressional hearings since his first testimony in 2018. But documents offer a clear picture that even when Facebook staff know teens are harmed, safety is not prioritized.
Haugen’s disclosures have given Congress bipartisan support to attack the problem across party lines.
“Frances Haugen’s testimony spoke to what many Americans have suspected: that social media can be harmful to children and teens,” U.S. Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., told the Register. “If it is true that Facebook knew its platforms were harming children, but decided to do nothing about it, that should cause outrage.”
According to Armstrong, Facebook needs to be held accountable for its actions, including Zuckerberg’s recent testimony before Congress stating that its platforms do not have a negative effect on minors.
“Congress must enact targeted reforms to rein in Big Tech on antitrust, privacy and harm toward children,” Armstrong said. “As a member of the House Republican Big Tech Censorship and Data Task Force, I will continue to push for commonsense solutions to hold Big Tech accountable and keep our children safe when online, while making sure that no reforms implemented make it easier for Big Tech to censor conservative viewpoints.”
In her Oct. 5 testimony before the Senate subcommittee, Haugen noted that Congress first needs to educate itself on the rewards-based social-media culture of Facebook and Instagram. She likened it to cigarette addictions and the opioid epidemic, which Congress has acted on.
Impacts High-School Experience
Haugen said that Facebook knows that Instagram affects the habits of the high-school experience, including not being able to escape negative situations. “The bully follows them home,” she said.
Jennifer (not her real name), a ninth-grade English and literature teacher, spoke with the Register but requested anonymity in order to speak freely. She attested to social-media apps harming the high-school experience and pointed to damage from social media in general.
“Last month, there were Tik Tok challenges across the country to steal things from your school, and the bigger the item the better,” she said. “We lost soap dispensers, and teachers all over the U.S. had to lock bathrooms. It’s very destructive.”
She added that school counselors often get involved in conflicts that stem from bullying on social media. “Kids will be devious and take pictures of others in the bathroom and send them to others. There is also the problem of kids sending nude photos of themselves. But beyond the bad stuff, it’s the distraction. I feel like that is really ruining education. Lots of kids are missing work, and I’ll walk around on breaks and see them on their phones.”
Jennifer does not allow students to use smartphones in the classroom.
“I used to coach dance team,” she said, “and every time I relaxed the rule of no phones during practices, some girl would be crying over what someone posted about her on social media.”
She wishes parents would go back to basic phones for their children. “Kids don’t need smartphones; schools have devices,” she said. “But they can’t say No, and some kids say their parents are always on their phones, too.”
Therapists See Harm
“We often forget that the companies who create these platforms do so with the desire to earn revenue through advertising, which shapes and influences our perception of ourselves and the world,” Barbara Pitts, a licensed social worker with Catholic Family Services in Birmingham, Alabama, noted. “All of us, especially children, are vulnerable to comparing ourselves to what we see, be it the perfect model or best friend who seems to be ‘living the dream,’” she said. “That can leave us feeling flawed and ‘less than’ in comparison. Adults have the ability to reason and filter through this content, but children lack the ability to discern that no person or thing is perfect or, for that matter, brings happiness.”
Pitts recommends that parents limit screen time for children and themselves and aim to help children realize the profit motive behind social media. She also suggests pointing out that postings are naturally happy and wonderful, but with such content we don’t see that others have struggles, too.
Parents should consider age appropriateness for smartphones, she added. “There really is no need for children who are typically under the supervision of an adult to have a phone,” Pitts said. “Only when our children are more independent, such as driving, should we consider getting a phone for safety purposes.” Even then, she said parents should monitor how the phone is used, since teens are still vulnerable to influences.
“I would not trust any social-media platform,” said Michael Horne, director of clinical services for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, and the author of The Tech Talk: Strategies for Families in a Digital World. He told the Register, “Any time you have a corporate business making decisions, they are always going to decide for profit.”
Drawing on nine years of experience as a therapist with adolescents, Horne said the problem is getting worse. He sees many parents afraid that if they restrict their children’s social-media platforms, they will restrict their success. In reality, he contends that social media is limiting their ability to form relationships and resolve conflicts.
“They just ‘unfriend’ and make people disappear,” Horne said. “That’s problematic. Our kids fear that if they cause any disruption, they will be rejected by their social-media friend groups.”
Horne challenges families to take a two-week break from screens beyond necessary work and school matters.
“It will help to reconnect our family and focus on what is important, as opposed to what they see as normal,” he said. If parents need an incentive, Horne pointed to a 2017 survey across all age groups that revealed the average person spends five years, four months of their time just on social media.
“We have to remember that technology is a tool that can be used well,” he said.” But if we don’t know how to connect with people, we become isolated — and that is a huge problem.”