Ever since The Wall Street Journal published internal Facebook research that found Instagram harmed the well-being of teenage girls, the company’s defense has been to minimize and dismiss its own findings — saying documents were only relevant for internal product development. That’s nonsense, social science researchers say.
Though Facebook’s work by itself is limited, it fits into a larger set of data — including from researchers outside the company — that suggests social media can have harmful effects on mental health. And even if that context didn’t exist, Facebook’s work alone suggests something bad enough is going on that it should cause concern.
The Wall Street Journal’s reporting included internal slides discussing data that showed Instagram was linked with issues like anxiety, depression, suicidal thought, and body image issues. Facebook immediately went on the defensive, saying that the data was taken out of context, that it was subjective, and that it couldn’t prove anything about Instagram. The company’s efforts to obfuscate the research and smear the whistleblower who leaked it appear to be straight out of Big Tobacco’s playbook.
Experts The Verge contacted think that, while Facebook’s statements on its research may be technically correct, they’re somewhat misleading.
“It’s completely disingenuous,” says Melissa Hunt, a psychologist and associate director of clinical training at the University of Pennsylvania.
“It’s completely disingenuous”
Facebook put up its own version of the leaked slides — complete with annotations that it said “give more context” on the research. Many of those annotations stress that the data is “based on the subjective perceptions of the research participants,” and that it wasn’t designed to assess if or how Instagram caused any positive or negative effects.
The annotations also repeatedly note that the research is qualitative. It relied on subjective information collected on questionnaires and through conversations with Instagram users, and it didn’t collect data that determined how frequently users experienced things like depression or body image issues. Facebook is arguing, then, that the information only shows that some users say they feel that way — and that it’s not enough to draw a line between Instagram and the mental health of teen girls more broadly.
Facebook said in a statement to The Verge that the studies were designed to help its product teams understand how users feel about the products, “not to provide measures of prevalence, statistical estimates for the correlation between Instagram and mental health or to evaluate causal claims between Instagram and health/well-being.” That changes the inferences people can make about the data, a spokesperson said in the statement.
On the surface, that’s not an unreasonable response, says Kaveri Subrahmanyam, a developmental psychologist at California State University, Los Angeles, and associate director of the Children’s Digital Media Center, Los Angeles. The research was only based on survey data, and it wasn’t designed to measure if or how Instagram causes changes in people’s mental health. That’s a problem with a lot of research around social media and mental health, she says: it’s asking people how they feel at one point in time. “That doesn’t tell you much,” Subrahmanyam says.
In that sense, Facebook’s right — there’s not much people can infer about the impact of a social media platform off of that …….