Facebook ‘Has Always Known It’ Shocking Revelations of Instagram Document Leaks Not Surprising to Experts

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Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) center speaks as Facebook’s global director of security, Antigone Davis, testifies remotely before a Senate subcommittee hearing on consumer protection, product safety and product safety data to examine child protection online, focusing on Facebook, Instagram and the damage to mental health, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on September 30, 2021. (Photo by TOM BRENNER / POOL / AFP via Getty Images)

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

It is important to keep this context in mind when reading the Facebook internal research papers published by the the Wall Street newspaper September 29. In a presentation titled “Teen Girls Body Image and Social Comparison on Instagram – An Exploratory Study in the US,” Facebook researchers described – in colorful diagrams and branded graphics – the “downward spiral” that is at stake. both triggered and “exacerbated” using the Instagram platform. “Once in a spiral,” the paper reads, “adolescents go through a series of emotions that in many ways mimic the stages of grieving.”

The stages of mourning are presented as a ouroboros of brightly colored arrows taken from the Instagram brand’s color palette. “Negotiate” is a deep royal purple. “Insecurity” is a pretty cornflower blue followed immediately by the brilliant 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? The Facebook researchers concluded that “the mental health outcomes related to this can be serious.” Below that title, in bright red text, is a list of the results. The first is “eating disorders”.

To say that to explicitly link the use of a product to a category of disorders that have death rates similar to cocaine abuse is alarming would be an understatement. But eating disorders are mostly associated with women and girls and affect them disproportionately. They are not treated with the same severity as substance use disorders. It’s hard to imagine a researcher at a tech company exhibiting a rainbow-colored ‘downward spiral’ that ends in amphetamine abuse before moving on to design recommendations that include the implementation of more “fun” photo filters and experimenting with “mindfulness breaks”.

Renee Engeln is a professor at Northwestern, where she heads the university Body and media laboratory. Englen is studying the same relationships between social media, mental health, and body image that Facebook discusses in the leaked report. I sent him the report and called shortly after.

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

She told me, based on reading the report, that Facebook underestimates the severity of eating disorders as well as the extent of eating disorders. At the same time, Englen said Facebook is also missing the most important point of the effect Instagram has on its users. “You don’t have to have an eating disorder for it to matter,” Englen said. “When a whole generation of girls spend a lot of time hating what they see in a mirror, it’s a mental health issue, even if they don’t meet the criteria for diagnosing a mental disorder. “

Facebook says the leaked research was misinterpreted by the Journal and responded by posting and annotating two internal presentations about Instagram toxicity. “This type of research is designed to inform internal conversations and the documents were created and used by people who understood the limits of the research,” reads the update. 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 documents provided to his office by a whistleblower that contradicted Facebook’s soft pedal on his own internal research. “Substantial evidence suggests that experiences on Instagram or Facebook worsen body dissatisfaction, especially viewing attractive images of others, viewing filtered images, posting selfies, and viewing content with certain hashtags,” Blumenthal said.

Testifying at the same hearing, Facebook’s global chief safety officer Antigone Davis said the company believed Instagram was helping more teens than it was harming them, but added the research led to “many” changes that include “a dedicated reporting feed for eating disorder content.” “

Englen dismissed Facebook’s argument that Instagram was sometimes a positive experience for young people. “The fact that the platform can offer positive and negative experiences is not interesting. It’s just typical. When I see people minimizing a report like this, I want to know how many people produced the report. How many people were at the meeting when it was introduced? I want you to add up all those hours and how much these people are paid and then tell me you didn’t think that was a big deal.

Facebook has, in recent days, suspended its initiative to develop “Instagram Kids”, a version of the application for users under 13 years old. “This will give us time to work with parents, experts, policy makers and regulators, to listen to their concerns, and to demonstrate the value and importance of this project for young teens online today” , wrote Adam Mosseri, head of Instagram.

Mental health experts were not specifically named in Mosseri’s list. Whether or not Facebook’s internal research is accurate, the way the findings were presented demonstrates an attitude that seems out of step with the seriousness of their findings. And there’s not a lot of evidence to suggest their in-house researchers are wrong or not qualified to study the problem.

“I know there are scientists working on Facebook and Instagram,” Englen said, “We have people who got PhDs from our department working there. I know they have good scientists, so I know they already knew this stuff.

A study conducted by the Englen laboratory with researchers from UCLA and the University of Oxford , has shown that Instagram is potentially more harmful to self-image than other Facebook products.
Englen and his team found that when the study subjects used Instagram (but not Facebook), it resulted in a significant decrease in body satisfaction – in just seven minutes of use.

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

I asked Englen what social media companies can do to improve the mental health outcomes of their users. She wasn’t optimistic that Facebook would implement changes without intervention.

“I don’t trust social media companies to do anything to minimize harm to young people. I think it’s not in their best interests to do so. I think what interests them most is to minimize the damage to their reputation so that they can continue to earn a lot of money and gain a lot of social influence and power. And I’m sorry if it’s obnoxious, but you can quote me on that.

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