Last month, former Facebook (now Meta) employee Frances Haugen exposed the company’s inaction to the Senate after internal research revealed that Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, had harmful effects on teenagers, specifically girls.
Facebook’s research, which included various surveys of its users leaked to the Wall Street Journal by Haugen, showed that Instagram was responsible for exacerbating body issues, eating disorders and suicidal thoughts by 32%, 17% and 13.5% in teenage girls, respectively. The Senate hearings also touched on algorithmic biases, dangerous content and the spread of misinformation, according to NPR. As the majority female staff of a student newspaper, we felt we needed to examine our place as the supposed victims of social media companies.
As the generation that has grown up amid various social media platforms’ rises and downfalls, we are the guinea pigs of technology and its influences on our teenage years, a time when we’re supposed to be figuring out who we want to be and what we want to contribute to the world.
We have all had the experience of seeing something you wish you hadn’t on social media and feeling scarred afterwards. Many of us have felt unsafe when using these platforms, for example, feeling like you’re being listened to for ad targeting.
This begs the question of regulation, which feels like a double-edged sword in and of itself. On one end of the spectrum, allowing social media companies full autonomy over regulation of their platforms puts responsibility for censorship largely in individuals’ hands, whereas placing responsibility in the hands of the government could incite censorship.
Ultimately though, we believe that the government should be responsible for monitoring and regulating the ever-growing landscape of social media. We cannot let private companies persist in subtle attacks on our mental health, which will build up and undoubtedly leave a notable impact on our generation.
We spend so many hours of our lives scrolling, liking and judging from behind the blue screen. Social media is a paradox; it is the best of the world and also the worst of the world. It both invites comparison and anxiety over the way you’ll be seen by others and can open up your universe to everything beyond your immediate surroundings. As adolescents and children, we have been trained to filter through obvious misinformation and scams, but we cannot be expected to know how to protect ourselves from being targeted.
The basic internet safety classes from elementary school are not cutting it.
Technology is constantly changing, and it’s impossible to learn about and respond to all the new algorithms that companies subtly develop. It’s impossible to understand, just by looking at a profile picture, that there’s a real person behind the username. It is impossible to foresee how innocently downloading an app will make your free time dissipate into nothing. It cannot be up to us to adjust to every new development that billionaires behind the app spend their and hundreds of their workers’ days developing. It is not our responsibility.
If private companies don’t step up, the government must take steps to protect the youngest and most vulnerable populations who are exposed to such dangerous subtle attacks on their mental health.
The Senate hearing was a step in the right direction, and through it, we witnessed senators from both sides of the aisle step up and speak out against social media’s taking advantage of youth.
We saw Twitter step up through temporarily suspending Trump’s Twitter account in the final months of his administration, when his tweets incited riots. We saw a newfound effort by social media companies to curb the spread of misinformation during the 2020 elections, by marking content factually inaccurate.
But why does it take physical violence like the insurrection on the U.S. Capitol and a ravaging pandemic for companies to feign efforts to protect us? Companies have made it clear that they cannot do their job well when left to their own devices, especially in the aftermath of this very hearing.
As adolescents, we have unlimited potential for growth that can be easily imprinted upon. The threat of constant exposure to misinformation can seriously harm the way we think, make decisions as adults, and affect others. While social media is a vast landscape that offers insight into the lives of people thousands of miles away from us, the detrimental effects are staggering. Haugen’s testimony must serve as a starting point to face the social media giants advancing their platforms while leaving us behind as collateral damage.