In 1995, 15 years before founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger secured seed funding for the app that would become Instagram, a The metastudy of mortality from anorexia nervosa was published in the American Journal of Psychiatry . The findings were startling. The study showed that the death rate associated with anorexia nervosa was more than 12 times higher than the annual death rate for women aged 15 to 24 in the general population, and the risk of suicide more than 200 times higher. In the decades that followed, more research was conducted. The conclusions were similar. Eating disorders that included anorexia, bulimia, and EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified) were not only fatal, but had a range of death rates that, at the higher end, were comparable to cocaine abuse. TO meta-study of all-cause mortality from mental disorders conducted in 2014 found that anorexia nervosa was specifically associated with a higher death rate than alcohol use disorder. Only opioid use was significantly more deadly.
It is important to keep this context in mind when reading the Facebook internal research papers posted by Wall street journal September 29. In a presentation titled “Teen Girls Body Image and Social Comparison on Instagram: An Exploratory Study in the USA,” Facebook researchers drew, in colorful diagrams and brand graphs, the “downward spiral” that is triggered and it is “exacerbated.” by using the Instagram platform. “Once spiraling,” the document says, “adolescents go through a series of emotions that in many ways mimic the stages of grief.”
The stages of the duel are presented as an ouroboros of brightly toned arrows drawn from the Instagram brand’s color palette. “Bargaining” is deep royal purple. “Insecurity” is a beautiful cornflower blue immediately followed by the bright kelly green of “Dysmorphia.” The result, according to Facebook, is that “aspects of Instagram exacerbate each other to create a perfect storm.”
What is inside the storm? The Facebook researchers concluded that “mental health outcomes related to this can be serious.” Below this title, in bright red text, is a list of the results. The first is “eating disorders.”
To say that explicitly connecting the use of a product with a category of disorders that have mortality rates similar to cocaine abuse is alarming would be an understatement. But eating disorders are primarily associated with women and girls, and affect them disproportionately. They are not treated as seriously as substance use disorders. It’s hard to imagine a tech company researcher presenting a rainbow-colored “downward spiral” ending amphetamine abuse before moving on to designing recommendations that include implementing more “fun” photographic filters and experimenting with “time breaks.” full attention”.
Renee Engeln is a professor at Northwestern, where she runs the university. Body and media laboratory. Englen studies the same relationships between social media, mental health and body image that Facebook is addressing in the leaked report. I sent him the report and called shortly after.
“We have known all this forever,” he said immediately. “They too have known this forever.”
She told me, upon seeing the report, that Facebook is underestimating the severity of eating disorders, as well as the extent of eating disorders. At the same time, Englen said that Facebook was also missing the most important point of the effect Instagram has on its users. “You don’t have to have an eating disorder for it to matter,” Englen said. “When an entire generation of girls spends a significant amount of time hating what they see in a mirror, that is a mental health problem, even if they do not meet the diagnostic criteria for a mental disorder.”
Facebook claims that the Journal has misrepresented the leaked research and has responded by posting and scoring two internal submissions on Instagram toxicity. “This type of research is designed to inform internal conversations and the documents were created and used by people who understood the limitations of the research,” the update reads. a statement attributed to Pratiti Raychoudhury, Vice President, Head of Research for Instagram.
At a Senate hearing on Sept. 30, Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal read documents provided to his office by a whistleblower that contradicted Facebook’s smooth manner of its own internal investigation. “There is substantial evidence to suggest that experiences on Instagram or Facebook worsen body dissatisfaction, particularly when viewing attractive images of others, viewing leaked images, posting selfies, and viewing content with certain hashtags,” Blumenthal cited.
Testifying at the same hearing, Facebook’s global chief security officer, Antigone Davis, said the company believes that Instagram helps more teens than it harms, but added that the investigation led to “numerous” changes including “a flow Dedicated Reporting for Eating Disorder Content “. “
Englen rejected Facebook’s argument that Instagram was sometimes a positive experience for young people. “The fact that the platform can provide positive and negative experiences is not interesting. That is typical. When I see people downplaying a report like this, I want to know how many people produced the report. How many people were in the meeting when you introduced yourself? I want you to add up all those hours and how much those people get paid, and then tell me you didn’t think it was a big deal. ”
Facebook, in recent days, stopped its initiative to develop “Instagram Kids”, a version of the application for users under 13 years of age. “This will give us time to work with parents, experts, legislators and regulators, to listen to their concerns, and demonstrate the value and importance of this project for the youngest teens online today.” wrote Adam Mosseri, director of Instagram.
Mental health experts were not specifically mentioned on Mosseri’s list. Regardless of whether Facebook’s internal investigation is accurate or not, the way in which the findings were presented demonstrates an attitude that appears to be out of step with the seriousness of its findings. And there isn’t much evidence to suggest that your internal investigators are wrong or unqualified to study the problem.
“I know there are scientists who work on Facebook and Instagram,” Englen said, “we have people who have earned a PhD from our department who work there. I know they have good scientists, so I know they already knew these things. ”
A study conducted by Englen’s laboratory together with researchers from UCLA and the University of Oxford , showed that Instagram is potentially more damaging to its own image than other Facebook products.
Englen and his team found that when study subjects used Instagram (but not Facebook), there was a significant decrease in body satisfaction, in just seven minutes of use.
“They just played on their own Instagram account for seven minutes,” Englen said. “And that was enough.”
I asked Englen what social media companies could do to improve mental health outcomes for their users. He was not optimistic that Facebook would implement changes without intervention.
“I don’t trust social media companies to do anything to minimize harm to young people. I don’t think they should do it. I think what they are most interested in doing is minimizing the damage to their reputation so that they can continue to earn a lot of money and gain a lot of influence and social power. And I’m sorry if that’s disgusting, but you can quote me on that. ”