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Halloween isn’t over yet: Have Facebook created a monster they can’t control?

After a whistle-blower set off a series of damming articles in the Wall Street Journal revealing Facebook Inc.’s own research into the harmful effects of its platforms, the public was left wondering what they can do to keep children and teenagers safe. Whistle-blower, Frances Haugen, told a congressional hearing that Facebook “harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy,” and what’s worse – Facebook has known this for two years and done little to fix it. The most striking of Facebook’s findings was that Instagram makes body image issues worse for 1 in 3 teenage girls and for 13% of people experiencing suicidal thoughts, those thoughts began on Instagram. 

Research conducted by The Student found that the negative effects go beyond teenagers and extend to the student population, with over 70% feeling that social media harms their mental wellbeing. If you’re someone who’s prone to falling down a social media wormhole, losing hours of the day or keeping yourself up at night then this figure may not be surprising. But, what many do find shocking is that the results of research that is now two years old has only just been brought to the public eye, and that a bigger effort has not been made to make sites like Instagram safer for users. Ninety six per cent of respondents to The Student’s survey felt that social media platforms were not doing enough to protect their users, highlighting that the social media free-for-all may be in need of reform. 

But despite all of this, we’re still hooked on it. For a majority of Edinburgh students, their daily fix was over an hour, with nearly a third of respondents spending over three hours a day on social media. But can we really be blamed? Pleasure seeking is hardwired into our brains and with an infinite feed of Instagram posts and TikToks at our fingertips, it’s no wonder we find it hard to pull ourselves away from the instant gratification of hitting refresh. Companies are capitalising on this knowledge too, designing content and ‘clickbait’ articles to be addictive and keep you engaging with them for longer, even being dubbed “attention engineers”. 

In an attempt to draw themselves away from the addictive nature of social media, a third of Edinburgh students consciously limit the time they spend on it and around half have given up (or attempt to give up) a form of social media all together. But for the two thirds of people who do not limit the time they spend on social media, is there a way to enjoy it’s benefits safely, without fear of damage to mental health? 

Facebook’s solution to at least part of the problem was Project Daisy. Trialled in 2019 as a way to make Instagram less toxic, they tested removing ‘like’ counts and comments on posts. However, they found that well-being stats from users on the trail didn’t improve. If you’re thinking the option to remove ‘like’ counts sound familiar, then you’re right. Despite it having no significant benefit on well-being (although no detriment either), Facebook rolled out the project anyway. Insight from the Wall Street Journal showed a Facebook internal presentation that said Project Daisy should still be rolled out as it would be perceived by press and parents as a positive step, even if the reality is that it has little impact. Facebook’s apparent lack of solution to a problem of their own creation leaves many wondering whether they have created a monster that they can’t control.

Taking things out of Facebook’s hands, whistle-blower Frances Haugen proposes a change in US legislation. Currently, social media companies are not held responsible for the content on their sites. However, Haugen suggests that when sites use algorithms to intentionally promote certain content towards users they should be held legally liable for it. 

While the negative side of social media can seem overwhelmingly prevalent, over half of survey respondents felt that their social life would suffer if they gave up social media alltogether. Keeping in touch with family and friends overseas, or even the next city is just one of social media’s upsides. There is also no doubt that social media has helped give voices to those who otherwise may not have had one in mainstream media, and can encourage displays of democracy such as protests or open and unpoliced discussions of politics. 

The question of whether the benefits of social media outweigh the costs will no doubt be around for as long as social media exists, and whether governments choose to step in further is yet to be seen. A solution that seems evident to the likes of Frances Haugen is that giants such as Facebook need to take responsibility for the power they yield. While The Student’s survey revealed the negative impact of social media spreads further than teenagers, the power is also in our hands to stop scrolling and take a break when we feel our health may be suffering. 

Image via Flickr