THE HARMS OF INSTAGRAM, FACEBOOK, AND SOCIAL MEDIA

Note: If you find my posts too long or too dense to read on occasion, please just read the bolded portions. They present the key points I’m making and the most important information I’m sharing.

The news that Facebook and Instagram are harmful, especially to teens and young people, is not new. In 2006, a college professor, Joni Siani, whose class on Interpersonal Communications had access to Facebook a year before the public, found almost immediately that the Facebook experience was stressful and depressing for her students. Her class effectively became a Facebook group therapy session. That’s the beginning of a story I’ll come back to in a minute. [1] (By the way, Facebook and Instagram are now part of a new corporate entity, Meta Platforms. This name change seems to me to be an effort to obfuscate responsibility and accountability for the harms caused by Facebook and Instagram.)

In 2019, the docudrama The Social Dilemma came out, which highlights the manipulation and harms of social media. I encourage you to watch the film (on Netflix) or at least watch the 2 ½ minute trailer that’s available on the website. I urge you to explore the website; there’s a wealth of information under the button “The Dilemma” and a variety of ways to pushback under the “Take Action” button.

The Social Dilemma was created by the Center for Humane Technology, which was founded in 2013 by a Google design ethicist. The Center’s website provides terrific resources for understanding the effects of social media platforms and how to use them intelligently. It has modules for parents and educators on how to help teens be safe, smart users of social media.

Last fall, a former Facebook employee, Frances Haugen, blew the whistle on Facebook’s practices with testimony to Congress, an appearance on 60 Minutes, and a trove of inside documents that the Wall Street Journal reported on extensively. (Blogger Whitney Tilson in one of her posts provides links to Haugen’s interview on 60 Minutes and to the Wall St. Journal’s investigative articles based on documents provided by Haugen. Tilson also wrote a letter to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg that’s part of her blog post.)

Haugen documented that Facebook is a threat to our children and our democracy. Furthermore, she made it clear that Facebook knows this but fails to take steps to reduce the harm because doing so would hurt profits. I previously wrote about the threats of Facebook to our children and our democracy here and what can be done about them here.

Instagram, a Facebook partner under the Meta Platforms umbrella, says it only allows users on its platform who are 13 or older, but its age verification tools are weak. Its algorithm (i.e., its decision-making processes) for what information to direct to individual users has been shown to promote harmful content to youth who are particularly susceptible to such messages, such as material promoting eating disorders. Instagram was developing a separate product targeting children under 13 until criticism and pushback from parents and child advocacy organizations caused it to announce that it had paused (but not terminated) development.

A resource for responding to social media’s threats to children is an organization called Fairplay and its website. Formerly the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, Fairplay has been fighting for years to protect kids from the manipulation and harm from commercial advertising and social media platforms. If you want to get updates from Fairplay, click on “Connect” under the “About” button to sign-up. Fairplay helps parents manage kids’ screen time and provides alternatives to screen time. It sponsors a Screen-free Week every spring. It has established the Screen Time Action Network to support parents concerned about the effects of screen time and social media platforms on their children.

Returning to the story of that college professor, Joni Siani, who in 2006 saw the harm that Facebook did to her college students, in 2013, she wrote a book about the love-hate relationship between users and their digital devices titled Celling your soul: no app for life. And she started an organization called No App for Life.

In 2021, Siani and No App for Life partnered with Fairplay and its Screen Time Action Network to create three podcasts titled The Harms. They present three stories of parents who lost a child due to social media platforms’ harmful impacts on their children. One describes the ruthless assaults of social media “friends” that led to a suicide. One describes how “fun” online challenges can lead to horrible results. And one describes how drug dealers sell their products on social media, even posting ads amongst all the other ads seen on social media constantly. These horrific examples are from strong families who were trying to do everything right in managing their children’s social media activities but were overwhelmed by the power of social media.

My next post will summarize Meta Platforms recent announcement of new and planned parental supervision tools, as well as the bipartisan Kids Online Safety Act, which has been introduced in Congress.

[1]      Rogers, J., & Siani, J., 3/6/22, “What do I do now? Unthinkable stories Big Tech  doesn’t want to tell,” Fairplay’s Screen Time Action Network and No App for Life Podcasts (https://fairplayforkids.org/harms-podcast/)

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