The evidence is damning. Whistleblower Frances Haugen, who initially spoke anonymously with the Wall Street Journal and then did a public interview on 60 Minutes, has raised questions about several key Facebook behaviors. Haugen, a former Facebook product manager who was tasked with “civic integrity issues,” has revealed Facebook’s own studies which document that 32% of teen girls have experienced negative effects on their body image when they spend time on Instagram (which is owned by Facebook). In the wake of the current scandals, Facebook has at least temporarily withdrawn its plans for an “Instagram for Kids” site.
Social media is not just a site of body image harm. The platforms can provide routes for teens (and everyone else) with body image issues to find support and community. High-profile entertainers like Lizzo offer remarkably strong body-positive images and statements. Well-designed studies and good medical advice are available to anyone with a good search string.
Nonetheless, the majority of people just scratch the surface of their social media sites, and so the tyranny of the majority has a lot of power. However much fat-positive work is out there to be proud of, there’s no denying that it’s overwhelmed by mainstream definitions of beauty … and mainstream peer pressure tactics. If a social media user doesn’t go looking for positive body image support, they’re unlikely to trip over it–while they will trip over “the norm” just by logging on.
Facebook — and TikTok, and SnapChat, and all the others — have ways to combat this. They have the tools to know who the central disseminators of negative information are. They could shut off the loudest dangerous voices and the most pervasive destructive images with a week’s effort. And they probably wouldn’t lose any significant amount of money. Instead, they double down:
They deny the value of their own data because of its small sample size. Small sample size is a problem, but who designed the study?
They say that Instagram didn’t do harm to teenagers in “other areas,” such as loneliness. Okay, great. But that doesn’t make this problem better.
They say a majority of respondents didn’t have exacerbated body image issues. Sure, fine, but 32% is a lot of people to hurt just because they aren’t the majority. And since some of those 32% reported increased or new suicidal thoughts, maybe we should take them seriously.
In case you weren’t thinking about it, boys have body image issues too. People of color are certainly affected, often very negatively, by the linkage between whiteness and “beauty.” Teens facing gender issues suffer from narrow expectations. And body image issues are not confined to teens–they affect everyone from pre-teens to octogenarians. Teen girls are the canaries in the mine, the group that is (often) most dramatically affected and most seriously at risk. The policies that fail to protect teen girls are dangers to a vast range of people.
It’s well known that people are ruder and more threatening on social media because they don’t really believe they are interacting with real people. Watching Facebook treat their own data as if it didn’t matter makes me wonder if social media users are just learning from social media moguls; if Mark Zuckerberg and Nick Clegg and other Facebook higher-echelon folks don’t believe their customers are real, how will we learn to believe in each other?
NOTE: This post is drawn from several sources, rather than just one or two. References available on request; just ask in the comments.
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