Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an associate professor of public relations at Hofstra University, is the author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She was spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @karaalaimo. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion at CNN.
Senators grilled executives from Snapchat, TikTok and YouTube on Tuesday about how their platforms impact young users. Asked how their platforms affect the mental health of teens and even promote eating disorders, the representatives all said they don’t allow such content and instead point users to expert information.
YouTube executive Leslie Miller said, “We …prohibit the type of content that glorifies or promotes these issues such as eating disorders.”
But outside data suggests they’re not fully successful in blocking such posts. The New York Times recently reported that some hashtags about eating disorders have received over 70 million views on social media.
The testimony was the first time representatives of TikTok and Snap, the parent company of Snapchat, have been called before the Senate. But it’s unlikely to be the last, as the tech industry — and in particular, Facebook and Instagram — face escalating scrutiny over their effects on young users. And for good reason. They need to do much more to protect teens’ mental health.
Last month, the Wall Street Journal highlighted internal research by Instagram’s parent company, Facebook, showing that “thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.” Then, in testimony before the Senate earlier this month, former Facebook staffer Frances Haugen – who leaked the documents – argued that Facebook was concealing evidence that its products make teens feel worse about themselves. On Monday, redacted versions of the documents leaked by Haugen were made available to 17 US news outlets, including CNN.
In an earnings call on Monday, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg called the disclosures misleading. “Good faith criticism helps us get better, but my view is that we are seeing a coordinated effort to selectively use leaked documents to paint a false picture of our company,” he said. “The reality is that we have an open culture that encourages discussion and research on our work so we can make progress on many complex issues that are not specific just to us.”
Zuckerberg is right that the research on how social media affects teens is complicated. But the way Facebook and Instagram have handled the mental health challenges of teens is very wrong.
It’s true that we can’t definitively blame social media for causing teens to have negative body images. Experts have pointed out that Facebook’s survey that found a third of girls say Instagram makes them feel worse about their bodies had a small sample size and relied on self-reporting, which is often unreliable. And, in other research, some teens say social media helps them feel better when they’re stressed or anxious.
But senators have good cause to be asking these questions. Research shows that teens who have more social media accounts are more likely to have disordered eating behaviors, even though that still can’t prove that the problems were caused by using social media.
Here’s what is clear. First, we’ve got to understand what social media does to teens. A 2019 report by Common Sense Media found that the average tween spends almost five hours per day on screens for entertainment – not including time spent on screens for homework – while the average teen spends over seven. And that was before the pandemic drove even more of their lives online! What’s more, 50% of teen girls (as well as 39% of teen boys) say they’re online almost constantly, according to Pew.
It’s crucial to understand what’s happening to their brains during all this time. Congress should allocate funding for rigorous research to answer the question.
Second, teens today are not OK. During the pandemic, when teens spent more time online, there was a 40% spike in calls to the National Eating Disorders Association helpline, and 35% of callers were aged 13-17. Between 2007-2017, rates of teen depression increased by 60%, according to Pew. (That’s, of course, about the same time that platforms like Instagram and Snapchat really took off.)
Since teens spend so much of their time online, social networks have a social responsibility to help.
There are two big things they can do. First, they’ve got to de-rank harmful content – like so-called “thinspiration” or “thinspo” posts that seem practically designed to harm girls’ body images. Instead, they should amplify content that encourages body positivity. This is complicated stuff, and algorithms can’t parse healthy from harmful content based on keywords alone. Instead, Facebook should hire more content moderators who are experts in this area – like child psychologists – who can identify and prioritize positive content.
In September, we learned that Facebook plans to amplify content that makes itself look good. There’s no excuse not to do the same with material that could make a difference to the mental health of vulnerable young people.
Second, social networks should include a symbol or other marker to flag when photos on their platforms have been manipulated with tools users often use to make themselves look unrealistically thin and make it appear that they conform to conventional beauty standards. That could help vulnerable young users – who, as I’ve pointed out before, are often left unhappy after comparing themselves to others on social media – when they realize that a lot of what they’re seeing simply isn’t real.
It’s time for social networks to take a close look in the mirror to investigate whether and how they’re impacting the mental health of teens. Simple claims that they prohibit posts glorifying eating disorders aren’t enough. As young people spend an astonishing amount of their lives online, this question also needs to be investigated urgently by independent researchers.
And, regardless of whether they’re to blame, social networks can — and must — take action to help teens who are suffering from devastating mental health challenges gain better perspective by promoting healthy content – and reminding them when what they often see isn’t realistic. That would give lawmakers, teens and parents a whole lot more to like about social media.