Status update: Facebook, mental health, and the future of social media legislation

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CW: mentions of suicide and body dysmorphia

Facebook is once again on the defensive, as the company is plunged into yet another scandal. It all began back in September, when The Wall Street Journal published an account of leaked company documents detailing the extent of Facebook’s knowledge into potential harms caused by Instagram, contrary to their public position on the matter.

The files, leaked by Frances Haugen, formerly a member of Facebook’s civic integrity team, do not reflect well on Instagram’s impact on the mental health of the young people who make up over 40% of the platform’s userbase. What they reveal has cast serious doubt about whether Facebook is able or willing to face its problems.

According to the documents, staff have known since at least 2019 that Instagram was mentally damaging to teenagers – one document from the files claimed that, when asked about the matter, “teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression”. By Facebook’s own admission, just over half of British teenagers they interviewed named Instagram as the root of their need to have “a perfect image”, and 13% of them named it as the cause of their suicidal thoughts. In light of the leak, Instagram has announced that plans for a kid’s version of the app have been paused.

This problem is not new, nor is it unique to Facebook and its subsidiaries. Questions about the potentially harmful impact of social networks on children and teenagers, be it through cyberbullying, warped ideas about relationships, or body dysmorphia, date back to the Myspace era.

By Facebook’s own admission, just over half of British teenagers they interviewed named Instagram as the root of their need to have “a perfect image”

It is hard to know how to deal with these problems, short of the wholesale abandonment of social media. Body image and bullying are issues that are sometimes inherent to the nature of adolescence. And the nature of social media algorithms is to build on what we are already feeling, whether those feelings are good or bad.

But increasingly, social media is less a discrete entity, and more a part of the framework of modern life: we search for flats on Facebook marketplace, follow student societies on Instagram, and get our news via Twitter alerts. As many realised when Facebook systems went down on the 4th of October, however we feel about it, we are heavily reliant on these networks. With this ubiquity has come not only an awareness of social media’s flaws, but an increasing government will to legislate.

Attempts to regulate social media are often difficult, and debates about freedom of opinion and government overreach feature prominently. Nevertheless, the UK government has been working on the online safety bill, which is currently in its draft stages, for months. The bill is described by the government as a “landmark new [measure]” to “protect young people and clamp down on racist abuse online, while safeguarding freedom of expression”.

While whistleblowers, politicians, and the public are by and large united in criticising Facebook’s actions, what will happen because of the leaked files is far from cut and dry

The bill pre-dates the Facebook leak by some months, but Haugen’s suggestions on Capitol Hill about government regulation are broadly in line with its plan to make social media moderation the responsibility of Ofcom. Haugen has been called to speak in front of a parliamentary committee on October 25th, and it is highly likely that the findings of that committee, and that of the files themselves, will impact the legislation as it develops.

The bill, however, is controversial. It has received strong criticism for its broad language and potentially expansive powers, and could face substantial opposition in parliament if it goes forward in its current form.

While whistleblowers, politicians, and the public are by and large united in criticising Facebook’s actions, what will happen because of the leaked files is far from cut and dry. This is not the first time the company has been in serious hot water. It is not even the first time this year. In real terms, the Facebook files have not told us much that we did not already know. Simply being aware of what Facebook, Instagram and the rest are doing is not necessarily enough to secure legislation to prevent it.

The government has yet to propose a direct legislative response to the Facebook files, but if they do attempt to tack that legislation onto an already controversial bill, then they perhaps risk squandering a moment of relative political cohesion on the issue that could be used to introduce specific, targeted legislation to fill in the gaps where Facebook and Instagram themselves have clearly fallen short.

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