Anti-Instagram case built on hype, not science

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Contrary to what you’ve heard from the press and Congress, internal documents leaked by former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen don’t prove that the company’s Instagram platform is psychologically branding teens. But the current fury clearly demonstrates another psychological phenomenon: the Fredric Wertham Effect, named after a New York psychiatrist who, like Haugen, starred in a televised Senate hearing about a news story. toxic threat to American youth.

Wertham testified in 1954 about his book, The seduction of the innocent, which he described as the result of a “careful and painstaking clinical study”. After reciting his scientific references, Wertham said: “It is my opinion, without any reasonable doubt and without reservation, that comics are a major factor in many cases of juvenile delinquency. “

The audience made the headlines of New York Times, one of many publications (including The New Yorker) to give Wertham’s book a rave review. Others presented his warnings under titles like “Depravity for Children” and “Horror in the Nursery”. During the great scare of comics, as historian David Hajdu calls she, churches, and the American Legion have hosted events across the country where school children tossed comics into bonfires. Wertham’s recommendation “to legislate these books in newsstands and candy stores” has inspired dozens of state and city laws banning or regulating comics, and many in the industry have lost their jobs. .

There has never been good evidence that comics hurt children. Wertham’s work was a jumble of anecdotes about troubled youth and unsubstantiated guesswork about comics inspiring violent crime. He worried, as today’s Instagram reviews do, that unrealistic images of curvaceous bodies were psychologically harming girls and claimed that superheroes promote everything from homosexuality ( Batman and Robin, Wonder Woman) to Fascism (Superman). Contemporaries like sociologist Frederic Thrasher castigated Wertham’s work as “prejudiced and worthless”, and that is later. exposed as fraudulent.

As we’ve learned time and time again, scientific rigor doesn’t matter to journalists and politicians keen to blame children’s issues on any new trend in media or entertainment, be it television, rock and roll, Dungeons and Dragons, heavy metal music, cell phones, rap lyrics or video games. This is the Fredric Wertham effect, which produces unproven moral panics and demands for government repression.

The villain of the day is Facebook, which is compared to Big Tobacco because its own confidential research supposedly proves how dangerous its product is. The research was revealed in a the Wall Street newspaper item, “Facebook Knows Instagram Is Toxic for Many Teen Girls, Company Documents Show,” which cited a survey revealing that 32% of teenage girls with body image issues said Instagram made them feel worse about themselves. problem. But most of the girls surveyed said Instagram had no effect (46%) or made them feel better (22%). And the question of body image has been the subject of only one of the the 12 questions of the survey. Of the remaining 11 (covering issues like loneliness, anxiety, sadness, and social comparison), girls who said Instagram made them feel better outnumbered those who said it made them feel better. made him feel worse. The teens in the survey were very positive on all issues.

A fairer headline would be “Facebook Knows Instagram Makes Most Teens Feel Better About Their Problems,” but that would also be wrong. No one can draw definitive conclusions from this investigation, because psychologists were quick to report. “Asking people to introspect the causes of their own mental health” Remarks Stuart Ritchie of King’s College London, “is not a reliable way to get to the truth, given everything that goes on in a person’s life that could positively or negatively affect their well-being.” It is even less reliable when asked leading questions encouraging them to identify a specific cause.

Social scientists have done more rigorous work analyzes measuring and tracking trends in adolescent social media use and psychological issues. Some have found negative effects and received a lot of publicity, as has Wertham. But other studies have shown that using social media doesn’t seem to make problems worse, and may even be a net benefit for teens.

The debate is far from resolved, but so far the most authoritative opinion comes from a study conducted jointly by the media-psychology divisions of the American Psychological Association and the Psychological Societies of the United Kingdom and from Ireland. The international team of 14 researchers performed a meta-analysis of 37 social media studies published over the past six years. The lead author of the study, currently in press at Professional psychology: research and practice, is Christopher Ferguson of Stetson University.

“Our large meta-analysis,” says Ferguson, “found that while there were certainly differences between studies, the overall effects observed in the field were too close to zero to support the hypothesis that social media or d ‘Other screen times predict mental health issues in users. This isn’t to say that no one is ever negatively affected, or that some people can be helped by social media, just that overall it does. it is a social neutral, even among adolescents.

Ferguson, of course, was not invited to testify at the Senate hearing. His rigorous research could not compete with the claims of the so-called whistleblower Haugen, who also happens to be a frequent campaign donor to Progressive Democrats and has received advice from seasoned Democratic strategists. Mainstream media and politicians loved her, like Glenn Greenwald writing, “Because it advances their quest for greater control over political discourse online.”

Threats from the White House and Congress have already intimidated Facebook and other platforms into banishing conservatives and censoring scientists and journalists who question progressive orthodoxy. Now, senators like Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut Democrat, who met Haugen even before his revelations were released, say this “Big Tobacco moment” gives Washington a rationale for exercising much more direct control.

Facebook is itself defend Stricter federal social media controls. It might seem odd, given that the new requirements to appease regulators and moderate content would be an expensive burden, but Facebook can bear the expense much more easily than its smaller competitors. Many of them may well be forced to close their doors, so the net effect would be to make Facebook more profitable than ever and more eager to censor speech that offends the political establishment.

This is exactly how the comic book industry reacted to Wertham’s fear in the 1950s. Many publishers went bankrupt, but others survived through self-censorship. They created an industry group called the Comics Code Authority and stuck to its long list of bans, which Hajdu describes in its history as “an unprecedented (and never surpassed) monument of self-imposed repression and prudery.”

In addition to banning illustrations and “suggestive” words with “unwanted meanings,” the Comic Book Code decreed that “police officers, judges, government officials and respected institutions should never be presented with so as to create a lack of respect for the established authority ”. It was all done in the name of protecting children, but the main beneficiaries of the Fredric Wertham Effect, then and now, are inevitably the fear-fabricating adults.

Photo by KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV / AFP via Getty Images

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