Facebook’s harm to young women shouldn’t be a surprise

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Amidst political outrage and parental alarm about the harm Facebook does to young women — now documented in the social-media company’s own leaked covert research — there’s something to remember: none of this to be surprising. needed.

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For years now, researchers have been documenting the damage that apps like Instagram do to a vulnerable teen’s mental health. A survey of young users found that time spent on Facebook-owned Instagram was associated with low self-esteem and poor body image. Studies analyzing user content and advertising found that teens were being exposed to dangerous dietary fads and pro-anorexia resources. Instagram’s potential to do harm was never hidden; It was right there, on the feed of every teen worrying about being obese, its algorithm serving up dazzling, impossibly beautiful, digitally altered body poison food.

“It’s scary that Facebook knew all this with it, and has done very little about it,” said Sarah Woodruff, a kinesiology professor at the University of Windsor who has been researching the negative side effects of Instagram since 2015.

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The big disclosure of this open secret has come at a particularly worrying time for the youth, who are stuck at home during the pandemic and are spending more time on social media than ever before. Even before COVID-19, Canadian teens were self-reporting higher rates of anxiety and depression—a finding supported by ever-increasing mental-health visits to emergency departments. Over the past year, hospitals and clinics have seen increasing cases of eating disorders and increasing waiting lists for treatment.

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It would be easy to blame that growth only on social media. Spending time online isn’t universally harmful — and, as Facebook took pains to point out this week, many teens have had positive experiences. But research has also shown that for a certain group of youth — especially those already at risk for mental-health issues — Instagram can be a dangerous place.

That’s what Facebook’s own research, which was leaked to The Wall Street Journal by former employee Frances Haugen, also suggests: Instagram makes one in five teens feel bad about themselves — especially girls. In. In a graph from Facebook’s original research, which accounted for a survey of 1,122 teens in the United States and the United Kingdom, nearly one-quarter said feeling they weren’t good enough “most likely”. Started on Instagram. The data also suggested a connection between Instagram and self-harm, or suicidal thoughts. Teens are “absolutely aware” that Instagram can be bad for their mental health, a Facebook research slide said, but are forced to live on it for fear of missing out.

These reports are being called Facebook’s Big Tobacco Moment – ​​a comparison to how that industry hid the knowledge that cigarettes cause cancer – and are fueling calls for regulation. Facebook is “aware that its products can be addictive and toxic to children,” a US senator declared this week before hearing Ms. Hogen’s testimony. “Their gain was more important than the pain they caused.”

Facebook has challenged Ms Haugen’s credibility, saying the research has been taken out of context and was based on small sample sizes and qualitative interviews, even marking mistakes in its charts. . But the company’s findings are in line with academic research, and as Dr. Woodruff and other experts argue, efforts to protect teen users have not been particularly effective. A few years ago, Instagram removed the ability to see the number of “likes” an image received and, in response to questions this week, Facebook removed content promoting eating disorders as well as adding new “likes”. “Opt out”. Controls that allow youth to have more say in what appears in their feed.

Facebook has become the modern nicotine

Facebook defends policies against teens on Instagram after criticism from Congress

But the banned hashtags are simply replaced with newer versions, Dr. And the ingredients easily outweigh the gatekeeping measures, says Woodruff. For example, even though Facebook says it blocks risky advertising from reaching children, a recent experiment by the US-based Tech Transparency Project found that the company accepted ads for teen users who use pills, alcohol, and more. And used to market excessive dieting. (The study mimicked a similar Australian experiment, where questionable advertisements were also accepted.)

One of the main criticisms against Facebook and Instagram is the computer algorithm used to forward certain images and accounts based on engagement. Teenagers curious about diet-themed posts will soon have a feed full of them; Click on #fitspo (the hashtag for fitness inspiration content), and you’ll next open the app to more images of skinny, muscular women in provocative poses, volunteering how you look like them if you sipped lemonade all day. can.

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“Teenagers do not consent to being bombarded with content that may be dangerous to them,” said Jennifer Mills, a clinical psychologist and researcher at the University of York who studied the negative effects of Instagram on body image. done, say. “He didn’t say, yes please, give me more of these things that are making me sad.”

This environment can be especially dangerous for young women at risk for eating disorders, who are often struggling with anxiety and low self-esteem. “It gets them into an area where everything they’re seeing makes them feel inadequate,” says Lee Thaler, a clinical psychologist at the Eating Disorders Continuum at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute in Montreal.

When Madison Chevery’s leadership and sporting activities were canceled last year due to the pandemic, the 16-year-old in Cochrane, Alta., began to struggle with anxiety and worry about gaining weight. She gradually stopped eating, losing 35 pounds in a few months. Instagram, she says, was full of advice for slim smoothies and extreme diets, and photos of women whose bodies she was jealous of. “You can tell yourself it’s a filter, but there’s always a chance it isn’t.”

She says she started gaming the app’s algorithm, knowing that clicking on posts knowing the app would get her more of them. “I didn’t see it as a problem. It was more like motivation.” Eventually, her weight loss worried her mom and her friends; when she returned to the sport, she had a chance to serve a volleyball at the net. Her doctor told her that she was in danger of being admitted to the hospital.

Abir Amir, now a first-year university student at the University of British Columbia, tells a similar story. Locked down and spending most of his time reading in his room, the then 15-year-old started skipping meals, losing 20 pounds on his 5-foot-3 frame. Instagram became a source of inspiration. She didn’t even have to go looking for posts about dieting – they popped up when she opened the app. She found them impossible to resist: “I felt so bad about how I looked.” Instagram had the answer that, even though spending time on the app, “lowered my self-esteem.”

In the end, apps like Instagram are simply a mirror of a society obsessed with a woman’s body shape. But unlike the glossy fashion magazine that made teens of previous generations feel inferior, Instagram doesn’t pile up under the bed, forgotten; It’s always present, signaled by your phone, the demanding, addictive, social assistant of modern teens. It’s filled not by supermodels, but by your friends and strangers who seem like friends. And it requires participation: Teenagers are expected to throw their images into virtual beauty pageants. They spend hours taking the perfect selfie, analyzing their faces for flaws, spotting flaws, getting friends to approve their likes, getting their peers to admire their posts, and then posting them. Frustrates when they don’t get the right comments. .

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“Once you go down the path of Photoshopping and editing your photos, you don’t hold back from it,” says Luciana Rosu-Ceza, executive director of the Bulimia Anorexia Nervosa Association in Windsor, Ont. Studies have found that when teens are aware that images have been edited to make the eyes bigger and the waist smaller, they still compare themselves to a computer-generated standard. Experts say that comments on Instagram often focus on beauty and appearance, even if the actual post is about an accomplishment. Offline, people don’t think of looking the same way, so a teenager may get the message that her real-world face isn’t good enough.

Today, in class 11, Ms. Chevery is recovering. After months of therapy and her mom carefully overseeing her diet, she’s back to almost her full weight, and can serve up volleyball again. She says she now sees how Instagram played a cheerleader role in her eating disorder, and that she spends less time on it.

Ms. Amir also took a break from Instagram as she recovered and regained her weight. He says his use is now under control. She still has food on her feed, but the focus is on cooking, not dieting. “When I have doubts, I speak for myself.” However, she still asks her friends to approve a picture before posting it. “I’m self conscious,” she says. “I don’t want to post something where I haven’t been assured it’s a good idea.”

Perhaps this is a moment of reckoning for social media sites like Instagram, as the researchers hope. But regulating online content will be complicated after so many years of practical approach, and there’s always a new app waiting to go viral. For example, the video-based app, TikTok, also uses algorithms and…

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