Congressional Reaction to Facebook’s Internal Research Has Created a Catch-22 for Social Media Companies

Daniel Castro October 4, 2021
October 4, 2021

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A recent Wall Street Journal article claimed Facebook executives discovered Instagram was harmful to teenage girls, especially their mental health, but has done little to address the problem. In response, the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Data Security held a hearing last week to explore these allegations. But any pretense of a serious examination of social media’s impact on youth quickly devolved into political grandstanding and gamesmanship that failed to address any of the important questions on the table and will only make it harder for the private sector to do so in the future.

To be clear, mental health in children is a serious issue, and Congress should make it a priority. The most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that nearly one in five high school students has seriously considered suicide. Moreover, multiple studies have found that media, including print, television, advertisements, and social media, can have at least some impact on the prevalence of eating disorders and preoccupation with body image among children and adolescents. And specifically on social media, where people tend to post idealized versions of their lives, some users compare themselves to others and come away with negatives feelings about their appearance.

Social media companies are aware of this dynamic and have responded by developing tools and resources to help parents teach their children healthy ways to use social media. For example, Instagram has partnered with leading nonprofits like the Child Mind Institute, an organization that helps children and families struggling with mental health, to develop a multilingual parent’s guide so families have information available to them about how to talk to their children about using social media appropriately.

Critics dismiss these efforts and say that social media companies are knowingly harming children for profit. They claim that Big Tech is just like Big Tobacco, intentionally hiding the harms of its addictive products from an unsuspecting public to enrich itself—an argument repeated at last week’s hearing by Sens. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT). As evidence, they pointed to the newly publicized internal Facebook research released by a former employee showing results such as “one in five teens says Instagram makes them feel worse about themselves.” Facebook detractors have jumped on those results, claiming they are a smoking gun.

But a closer look at the research shows a much more nuanced picture. Any situation that may cause social pressure or anxiety in some teens might create similar results. For example, it would not be surprising to learn that some teens report feeling worse after “going to school” or “going to the mall.” But more importantly, the alarmist headlines about Facebook’s internal research ignored the rest of the results. The same survey also showed that twice as many respondents—41 percent of teens—said Instagram makes them feel better about themselves (and 41 percent said it had no effect). As the same research goes on to show, many teens benefit from Facebook and Instagram by connecting with friends and family, sharing entertaining content, or exploring their interests.

Of course, the benefits of social media do not negate or justify the potential harm on some users. But Facebook does not appear to be ignoring the issue. The same “smoking gun” slides that The Wall Street Journal published explore the various types of harms users might experience, such as insecurity from comparing themselves to more popular users, isolation from not behaving or looking a certain way, or depression from gossip or bullying. And the presentation went on to explore ways in which the social network could support and uplift its younger users. Indeed, the company has taken a number of concrete steps, such as using AI to identify suicide-related content and creating resources specifically for individuals struggling with eating disorders.

But rather than holding a dignified legislative inquiry to consider all of the facts in context, this hearing more closely resembled the spectacle of frenzied children at a birthday party lining up to swing at a dangling piñata. However, instead of aiming blows at a box filled with candy, legislators each took their turn at the microphone, attempting to crack the witness by forcing them into a verbal gaffe. Case in point, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) asked the witness, “Are you still allowing sex trafficking on Facebook?” (Thwack!) Talk about a loaded question.

One of the most common critiques of social media companies is that they ignore problems on their platforms to the detriment of users. But, in this case, the facts in The Wall Street Journal’s article showed the opposite is true: Facebook has been actively looking into the potential negative impacts of its platforms so it can build a better product. This type of internal research on its own platform is exactly what Congress should encourage other social media companies to do. But the hearing last week sent exactly the opposite message. Other social media executives watching the performance might conclude that conducting internal research is too risky—better to plead ignorance than risk having the research used against them.

Either way, social media is in legislators’ crosshairs. The sad truth is that Congress has a history of overreacting to the potential impact of new technologies and forms of media on children. In the 1950s, the Senate held a hearing on comic books and juvenile delinquency. In the 1950s and 1960s, Congress held multiple hearings on the link between aggression in children and their exposure to violence on radio and television. And, in the 1990s, Congress held hearings on the impact of video game violence on children.

It is not surprising that history is repeating itself, but it is unfortunate. After all, there is important work that Congress could do, such as investigate how it might improve or expand existing programs for children on digital literacy and mental health, or explore additional research funding to better understand the impact of social media on public health.

There is another hearing this week to explore these issues further with the former employee who gave regulators the internal Facebook research that The Wall Street Journal reported on. She has now filed complaints with the Securities and Exchange Commission alleging the company misled investors, so perhaps Congress will get it right on its second try. But given its track record, that seems unlikely.