Fall 2021 has been filled with a steady stream of media coverage arguing that Meta’s Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram social media platforms pose a threat to users’ mental health and well-being, radicalizing users, polarizing users, and polarizing users. and spread misinformation.
Are these technologies – adopted by billions of people – killing people and destroying democracy? Or is it just another moral panic?
According to Meta’s PR team and a handful of conflicting academics and journalists, there is evidence that social media does not harm and the overall picture is unclear. They cite apparently conflicting studies, incomplete access to data, and the difficulty of establishing causality to support this position.
Some of these researchers have surveyed social media users and found that social media use has the smallest negative consequences on individuals. These results appear to be inconsistent with years of journalistic reporting, meta’s leaked internal data, common-sense intuition, and people’s life experience.
Teens struggle with self-esteem, and it’s not far-fetched to suggest that browsing Instagram can make it worse. Likewise, in the days before social media, it’s hard to imagine so many people refusing vaccinations, becoming hyperpartisan or succumbing to conspiracy theories.
So who is right? As a researcher who studies collective behavior, I see no conflict between research (except for methodological questions), leaks and people’s intuition. Social media can have devastating effects, even if the average user experiences only minimal consequences.
Average’s blind spot
To see how this works, consider a world in which Instagram has rich-to-rich and poor-to-poor effects on users’ well-being. Most, who are already doing well, find that Instagram provides social confirmation and helps them stay connected with friends. Minorities who struggle with depression and loneliness see these positions and feel bad.
If you average them together in one study, you might not see much change over time. This may explain why the findings of surveys and panels have been able to claim minimal impact on average. In general, small groups in a large sample have a difficult time converting the average.
Yet if we zoom in on the people most at risk, many of them can sometimes shift from sad to mildly depressed or from mildly depressed to dangerous. That’s exactly what Facebook whistleblower Frances Hogen pointed out in her congressional testimony: Instagram creates a downward spiraling feedback loop among the most vulnerable teens.
The inefficiency of this type of research is made worse by the need to measure a range of human experiences in individual increments – the tail of the distribution – of small but still significant numbers of people at risk. When people rate their well-being from a low point of one to a high point of five, “one” can mean breaking up with a partner they weren’t in the first place, prompting crisis intervention to stay. needed to be alive. These nuances are buried in the context of population averages.
Average loss history
The tendency to overlook marginalized harm is not unique to the consequences of mental health or even social media. It is a common mistake to allow mass experience to obscure the fate of small groups, and I would argue that it is often the people that society should be most concerned about.
It can also be a deadly tactic. Tobacco companies and scientists alike once argued that premature death in some smokers is not a serious concern because most people who smoke cigarettes do not die of lung cancer.
Pharmaceutical companies have defended their aggressive marketing strategy, claiming that most people treated with opioids get pain relief without dying from an overdose. In doing so, they have swapped vulnerable people for averages and steered the conversation toward gains, often measured in a way that obscures the very real harm to minority – but still substantial – people. group of.
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The lack of harm to many is not incompatible with the serious of harm to a few. With much of the world now using some form of social media, I believe it’s important to listen to the voices of concerned parents and struggling teens when they see Instagram as a source of distress. indicate. Likewise, it is important to acknowledge that the COVID-19 pandemic has prolonged as misinformation on social media has scared some people into seeking a safe and effective vaccine. These lived experiences are important evidence about the harm caused by social media.
Does Meta have an answer for this?
Establishing causality from observational data is challenging, so challenging that progress on this front earned the 2021 Nobel in Economics. And social scientists are certainly not well positioned to run randomized controlled trials to establish causation, particularly for social media platform design choices such as how content is filtered and displayed.
But it’s meta. The company has petabytes of data on human behavior, many social scientists on its payroll, and the ability to run parallel randomized control trials across millions of users. They run experiments all the time to figure out how to grab users’ attention, from the color, size, and shape of each button.
Meta may come forward with irrefutable and transparent evidence that their products are harmless, even to vulnerable people, if it exists. Has the company decided not to run such experiments or has it run them and decided not to share the results?
Either way, META’s decision is calling for and emphasizing the release of data about averaging effects.