Facebook has published two slide decks detailing its research into the effects of Instagram on teenage mental health. The slides have been heavily cited by The Wall Street Journal Earlier this month in a story that reported that the company’s own researchers found that “Instagram is harmful to a sizable percentage” of teenagers, especially teenage girls.
Instagram attempted to refute these claims, saying that its research has been mischaracterized. The resulting backlash has already forced the company to “pause” its work on an Instagram Kids app. It also increased pressure on Facebook to publish the underlying research that the company eventually agreed to do. Facebook’s security chief is due to testify on Instagram on Thursday at a hearing of the Senate’s trade committee on child safety.
The slides offer a rare glimpse of how Facebook researches delicate issues affecting its own services. Many contain lengthy notes with added “context” on the more controversial aspects of the research. For example, on a slide titled “The Perfect Picture of Being Attractive and Having Enough Money, You Are Most Likely to Start on Instagram,” it says that the information on the slide “is not intended to be estimates of the average experience of teenage users should be used “.
Other comments, such as one on a slide titled “One in five teenagers says they feel worse on Instagram, with British girls being the most negative,” try to downplay the results. “This research was not designed to (and does not evaluate) causal claims between Instagram and health or wellbeing.” (This line is repeated on several other slides.)
The research also provides insight into what kind of content teenagers perceive positively on Instagram. One slide says that meme accounts are one of the types of content that “makes teens feel the best”.
The release of the study is unlikely to reassure critics of Facebook, especially those in Congress who were already deeply suspicious of the company’s attempts to attract children to its services. Some Democratic lawmakers have asked the company to stop working on Instagram Kids entirely. For Facebook, younger users are not just one of the top demographics, but one where the company has consistently lost to competitors like Snapchat and Instagram.
Other research, also carried out by Facebook and published by The Wall Street Journal This week it emerged that Facebook was struggling to keep tween and teens going. On a slide not published by Facebook, the company discussed whether small children’s play dates could be used “as a growth lever for Messenger Kids”. Facebook later said it was “an insensitive way of asking a serious question and didn’t reflect our approach to building the app”.
Update 9/29/21 11:32 PM ET: The Wall Street Journal has released internal documents, including those that Facebook did not include in its report on Instagram’s impact on teenage mental health.
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