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Hearing about Facebook was billed as focusing on protecting kids online

Oct 6, 2021
Originally published on October 6, 2021 6:41 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, the congressional hearing yesterday focused in part on how to protect kids online because one of the allegations is that Instagram, owned by Facebook, is harmful to some kids. NPR education reporter Anya Kamenetz has been reporting on teen well-being and media use for many years. She even wrote a book about it called "The Art Of Screen Time." Now, before we talk to Anya, we should say for transparency that after writing the book, her husband's company was bought by Facebook. Her husband works in a division that's unrelated to the social media site. Anya, good morning.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK, so when you look at the information that was disclosed in these leaked documents, particularly about Instagram, what stands out?

KAMENETZ: You know, when I heard that Facebook had been concealing the fact that it was toxic for teen girls, I was excited that they had some big trove of data on their millions of users that would now come to light. But that's unfortunately not what happened.

INSKEEP: What do you mean?

KAMENETZ: Well, what Facebook has done largely is they've been asking teenagers about their opinions. This is market research. There's no control group. They're not talking to non-Instagram users or following people over time. And they say, do you think social media is bad for you? And, you know, this question doesn't happen in a vacuum, obviously, because clearly teenagers are hearing from the same sources we all are that social media is bad for them. So self-reports can be unreliable. And other experiments have shown that they are.

INSKEEP: So you are pointing out some of the limitations of this research that was exposed by these leaks. But some of the numbers are eye-popping. At least of the people surveyed, about 6% of teens blamed Instagram for suicidal thoughts. And an even larger number of girls felt that it made their body image issues worse. What's going on there?

KAMENETZ: So, you know, Facebook, I feel like, was a victim of their really bad own internal slide decks. As part of its public response to these leaks, they released annotations to this data that show that what appeared in the headlines was really misleading. So, for example, in a 2,500-person survey, only 16 total participants agreed that, one, they do have thoughts of suicide and, two, Instagram is also to blame. Obviously, even if that number is very small, it's still troubling.

And, you know, similar thing occurred with the body image. It's been reported that 1 in 3 teen girls say it makes their body image issues worse. In fact, there were 150 teen girl respondents who said, yes, I have body image issues. And then when you ask that small group, 100 of them, give or take, said, no, Instagram has no effect or it's actually making my body image issues better. And then 50 said, yes, it's making it worse. And that, of course, may be important information for the company to act on. But at the same time, it may not tell you anything useful about the likely impact of Instagram, say, on your teenager.

INSKEEP: Is there more reliable research from elsewhere suggesting that social media is bad for teenagers' mental health?

KAMENETZ: You know, I've been looking at decades of research, first on television, then on video games, now on social media. In big, well-designed studies with thousands of participants, mostly the results are tiny or null. So right now there's a huge opportunity for Facebook to go transparent, release data on millions of teenagers and help researchers figure out how to make social media healthier for teens, especially the vulnerable ones that we're all so worried about.

INSKEEP: NPR's Anya Kamenetz, thanks.

KAMENETZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.