October 28, 2021

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Facebook Downplayed Instagram’s Harm to Some Teens – Tech News Briefing

This transcript was prepared by a transcription service. This version may not be in its final form and may be updated.

Zoe Thomas: This is your Tech News Briefing for Wednesday, September 15th. I’m Zoe Thomas for The Wall Street Journal. It’s hard to be a teenage girl. Trust me, I’ve been one. And social media has not made that any easier. There’s now a constant place online to judge yourself against others and be judged by others. Studies show that can lead to increased anxiety, depression, and possibly even suicide. Facebook’s internal research reviewed by The Wall Street Journal shows its Instagram platform can have an out-sized negative impact on teenagers, particularly teenage girls. On today’s show, the latest installment of The Wall Street Journal’s investigative series, The Facebook Files. Reporter, Georgia Wells joins us to discuss what Facebook knows about Instagram’s impact on young girls and why it kept it to itself. That’s after these headlines.
Apple revealed its latest iPhone and a new look for its smartwatch at its annual September event yesterday. The tech giant is capping off a year of record profitability, largely thanks to sales of its iPhone 12, which was the first to include 5G capability and had a new look. The upcoming iPhone 13 has a longer battery life, but looks similar to its predecessor. That’s raised some concerns that sales may drop off as the company’s seen happen in other off years. Do you have any questions about the new Apple products? Are you thinking about upgrading, wondering what to do with your old devices or have any questions about privacy? Leave us a voicemail at 314-635-0388. We’re planning to answer listeners’ questions in an upcoming episode. Once again, that number is 314-635-0388.
SpaceX is set to launch four civilians into orbit as soon as today, marking a key milestone for the company. Its inspiration (inaudible) flight will orbit about 360 miles from Earth for at least 3 days before splashing back down to earth off the coast of Florida. It will be the first time a crew entirely made up of civilian astronauts will be sent into orbit. WSJ reporter, Micah Maidenberg has more.

Micah Maidenberg: In a sense, it’s kind of like a culmination of many years of work by NASA. The agency, years ago started thinking about tapping private sector space companies to provide it with services. SpaceX was one of those companies and NASA always wanted a situation where they’d be one customer, amongst many potential customers. And so that’s kind of … The agency wanted to sort of help spur a sort of private space industry that it could use, and that could be used for other purposes and missions as well.

Zoe Thomas: For more on this, checkout yesterday morning’s episode of our sister podcast, What’s News. And supermarket giant, Kroger, says it’s partnering with Instacart to offer 30 minute delivery to customers. Kroger said it tried to staking a claim in the highly competitive grocery delivery market, even before the pandemic created a surge in demand. But found it challenging because of limited staffing. Instacart already has the infrastructure like technology and shoppers in place at Kroger’s 2,700 stores, which the company say will make it easier to expand delivery offerings.
All right, coming up, eating disorders, social anxiety, depression, what Facebook knows about the impact Instagram has on some teenage girls. We’ll discuss after the break.
The impact of social media on teens is something that has been widely discussed in recent years. And if you think endless social feeds have a negative impact on teen’s sense of self-worth, well, so does Facebook. According to internal research reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, the social media giant found its Instagram service in particular could be harmful to teens, especially teenage girls. But the platform kept the findings private and in public, the company downplayed those concerns. Here’s Mark Zuckerberg at a congressional hearing this past March when he was asked about mental health and children online.

Mark Zuckerberg : The research that we’ve seen is that using social apps to connect with other people can have positive mental health benefits and wellbeing benefits, like helping people feel more connected and less lonely.

Zoe Thomas: As part of The Wall Street Journal’s investigative series, The Facebook Files, our reporter, Georgia Wells has been looking into the impact Instagram has on teenage girls and how much Facebook knows about it. And she joins me now. Hi Georgia.

Georgia Wells : Hey, thanks for having me.

Zoe Thomas: Georgia, I think a lot of us have a sense of what it’s like to compare ourselves on social media. But I want to ask about someone in particular, in your story, Anastasia Vlasova. Can you tell us about her and what impact Instagram had on her life?

Georgia Wells : Yeah, Anastasia signed up for Instagram when she was 13 years old and initially she was really drawn to a lot of the content from fitness influencers and she found it really inspiring. And so she started posting much of her own. But as the years went on, it became the source of anxiety and stress in her life. There were other things happening at the same time, there was pressure around school and sports and family, but she developed an eating disorder and she realized that for her, Instagram was playing a role. What she was seeing was triggering some of what she was experiencing, particularly around kind of, how did she stack up next to some of these fitness influencers who were older and had maybe been doing this for longer and who were only showing kind of their best selves.

Zoe Thomas: Okay. That’s just one story though. According to Facebook’s own research, how many teens are experiencing negative thoughts like this? How widespread is this problem?

Georgia Wells : So according to Facebook’s own research, “32% of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.” That’s from March, 2020. So another slide says, “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls.” And also like, I want to be clear, like it’s a range of different experiences, kind of, there’s a spectrum of the harm they can cause. So among teens who reported suicidal thoughts, 13% of British users and 6% of American users traced the desire to kill themselves to Instagram, according to another one of the documents.

Zoe Thomas: This is Facebook’s own research. And one of the things that they found was that Instagram is having more of an impact when it comes to social comparisons than other social media platforms. Why is that?

Georgia Wells : So Instagram really focuses on the body. So TikTok, for example, in the documents, they explained that TikTok focuses a lot on performance in a way that can kind of reduce the amount that it’s real life and also kind of increase the lightheartedness. Snapchat, meanwhile, they said is focused on the face and often it’s the users are protected by the fact that the filters tend to be more silly, like animal face filters rather than beautifying. Instagram though focuses on body and lifestyle, and it’s very much on beautifying and showing one’s best self. It’s a highlight reel.

Zoe Thomas: What are Facebook officials saying about this story and the research that it hadn’t made public?

Georgia Wells : Earlier this month, I spoke with Adam Mosseri, he’s the head of Instagram. And he said, he’s quite proud of this research. He framed it as, he said, it’s not dirty laundry. He said, this is work that he’s very proud of. He said that there aren’t any easy fixes here.

Zoe Thomas: Let’s hear a clip of that conversation from our sister podcast, The Journal.

Adam Mosseri : I think the most realistic thing we can do because the internet, by the way, is not going away. We can’t go back to 1960. Like there’s going to be social media. People are going to be able to connect at scale. The most important thing we can do is embrace that responsibility and invest in trying to come up with ways of helping people in mitigating that.

Georgia Wells : So they’ve tried to address aspects of Instagram. So this project called Project Daisy in which they gave users the option to remove like counts, with the hope that it would reduce how much pressure users feel when they share. And they found that it didn’t actually affect well-being very much. And so now they’re looking at potential ways to nudge users who might be down rabbit holes of harmful content, and also ways to nudge users to spend less time or to kind of remind them to take breaks from the app. But he was clear that he doesn’t see easy fixes and also any things they do add could potentially have like other effects. So it’s like, they feel like it’s kind of a balancing act for them.

Zoe Thomas: So what is at stake for Facebook and for Instagram, if it tries to address some of these issues?

Georgia Wells : For years, Facebook executives have struggled to find ways to reduce Instagram’s harm while keeping people on the platform. And even though Facebook’s own data showed Instagram is toxic for many teenage girls, expanding their young users is vital to the company’s like $100 billion in annual revenue. They don’t want to jeopardize that engagement. At the same time, if users have really crappy experiences, they might leave the platform. So there is a business imperative for the company to want to address this. Facebook also has ambitions to launch Instagram for kids product. And so I think that their ability to answer a lot of these questions around the effect that platforms have on users will kind of inform how lawmakers and parents feel about the prospect of that product.

Zoe Thomas: Let’s talk a little bit about lawmakers and parents and mental health professionals feel about what goes on, on Instagram now. What’s their take on the impact of this social media on young girls in particular?

Georgia Wells : So back in March, Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg spoke in a hearing with lawmakers on Capitol Hill. And at the time, several lawmakers asked him about the research and he declined to provide it. And then after that hearing, Senators Blackburn, Senator Blumenthal and other lawmakers reached out to Facebook to ask for the research and Facebook did not provide the research. What we’re seeing in reaction to our story is kind of outrage among some of these same lawmakers who have wanted to see the research and they’re calling on Facebook to provide more answers.

Zoe Thomas: So we know Facebook didn’t want to make this research public. What are they saying about why they decided to keep it private?

Georgia Wells : So after Senators Blumenthal and Blackburn wrote a letter to Facebook asking for the research, Facebook responded with its own six page letter, and it did not include the company’s own studies. And in that letter, Facebook told the senators that its internal research is proprietary and “Kept confidential to promote frank and open dialogue and brainstorming internally.”

Zoe Thomas: We should note that in that discussion, Mosseri said there are also concerns about protecting user’s privacy. But even before this study came out, there were concerns about the impact of Instagram and social media more broadly on teens. What did mental health professionals you spoke to say about those impacts?

Georgia Wells : Researchers, academics, they’ve been looking at these issues for years and they’ve wanted access to Facebook’s information because Facebook’s data is in a lot of ways, kind of the Holy Grail in terms of the answers to these sorts of questions that they’ve been trying to get at. And so Facebook’s own research sort of comes out in line with some of the findings that academics have had in the past. But part of the reason why this research matters is that there’s not a consensus among researchers and academics. And so in the past, when Facebook has been asked about these issues, A, they’ve not provided their own research. But B, they’ve also kind of leaned into that lack of consensus as evidence for why the jury is still out, as why we don’t really know if there’s harm. And actually their own research finds that for some users, there is harm, there can be significant harm.

Zoe Thomas: What are experts telling you about Facebook’s decision to sit on this information?

Georgia Wells : So some of the experts I’ve been talking to have been drawing what they describe as a, perhaps not perfect, but interesting comparison to the tobacco industry. And so Jean Twenge, she’s a professor of psychology at San Diego State University. She said earlier, “If you believe that R.J. Reynolds should have been more truthful about the link between smoking and lung cancer, then you should probably believe that Facebook should be more upfront about links to depression among teen girls.” So certainly experts think Facebook should have been more transparent in their findings. And many of the parents I’m hearing from certainly wish that Facebook had been more transparent about their findings before their teenagers signed up for Instagram.

Zoe Thomas: All right. That was our reporter, Georgia Wells. Thanks for joining us Georgia.

Georgia Wells : Thank you Zoe.

Zoe Thomas: And that’s it for today’s Tech News Briefing. You can always find more tech stories on our website, wsj.com. And if you like our show, please rate and review it. You can do that wherever you get your podcasts. I’m Zoe Thomas for The Wall Street Journal. Thanks for listening.

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