“Downward spiral is exacerbated by our platform”
Katelyn Shelton | Facebook knows that its platforms are dangerous to teens—and now it’s aiming for younger children
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How much is a little girl worth? Apparently not more than Facebook’s bottom line, as The Wall Street Journal uncovered internal documents revealing the $1 trillion, Fortune 34 company knew that for girls with body-image issues, Facebook-owned Instagram made one-third of young girls worse off emotionally and psychologically.
Facebook not only failed to share its findings with Congress, which had pointedly asked for them, but also failed to do anything about it. Yet, despite this bombshell news, the company’s stock value is still up 30 percent over the last year, as little has changed investors’ view of the company as “a solid long-term investment.”
On Sept. 30, the Senate’s Commerce Committee held a hearing with Facebook safety executive Antigone Davis regarding children and the harms of social media, specifically Facebook and Instagram. Senators of both parties asked Davis about internal documents that had been leaked to The Wall Street Journal showing Facebook’s knowledge that aspects of Instagram, in Facebook’s own words, “exacerbate each other to create a perfect storm. … Users’ experience of downward spiral is exacerbated by our platform.”
To be clear, this “downward spiral” is not simply a negative experience, or one that results in a bad day. While Davis was clear that the findings were correlative and not causal, this downward spiral in some young people has resulted in body dissatisfaction, addictive behavior, eating disorders, anxiety, depression, and even suicide among young users. Since 2007, the year after Facebook’s debut, the suicide rate for young people skyrocketed: for ten- to 14-year-olds, it has doubled. For young girls, it has quadrupled. And while Instagram did not create this problem, Facebook is aware of its complicity.
Until a few weeks ago, when The Wall Street Journal released the so-called “Facebook Files,” Facebook was planning to launch a new product called Instagram Kids that not only would be aimed at children younger than thirteen—it would be aimed at children from birth. However, the company announced ahead of the hearing Thursday that the company would pause the product and revisit it “at a later date.” Davis gave no indication how long that pause may be.
Perhaps the most incriminating feature of the Facebook Files is their written acknowledgment, inside the company, that their platforms “make body dissatisfaction worse,” and promote an “addicts’ narrative” amongst teens. This was after Facebook declined to answer or intentionally misled lawmakers when explicitly asked about children’s mental wellbeing and addictive usage patterns.
However, the internal Facebook documents reveal that “13% of British users and 6% of American users trace their desire to kill themselves to Instagram.” They show instances of revenge pornography that Facebook allowed to remain online despite violating the company’s community standards. They reveal that people have been bought and sold on Facebook into sex and domestic slavery and that Facebook only took substantive steps to stop the practice when Apple threatened to remove their app from its store. Facebook also kept revenue from ads bought by human traffickers.
Further, confidential Facebook documents show Facebook is studying the parent-child power dynamic, a concept they’ve coined the “youth helix,” whereby they are working to create a product that will make children want to choose them despite their parents’ potential misgivings. “Facebook knows the destructive consequences that Instagram’s design and algorithms are having on our young people and our society,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said in the hearing, “but it has routinely prioritized its own rapid growth over basic safety for our children.”
Ursula LeGuin, in her short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” portrays the perfect city of Omelas: the adults are well-dressed and cheerful, the children are mature and playful and full of joy, the well-laid streets are full of parading townspeople, framed by snow-capped mountains. But once children are old enough to understand, they learn a secret about Omelas: all of the city’s happiness and prosperity is wholly dependent upon one child’s misery. The child, kept locked away in an unlit basement, is malnourished and sitting in her own excrement. Some children wish to help the child. But even a kind word of comfort, even the tiniest improvement, would be to exchange “all the goodness and grace” of Omelas, of the life of every single resident, to “throw away the happiness of thousands for the chance of the happiness of one.”
How much is a little girl worth?
Facebook’s answer is decidedly commercial, as it has proven time and again: not enough to take the steps proven to help the users it has harmed. Not at the risk of its own growth, profit, and prosperity. While Davis said that even one struggling user is one too many, Facebook’s own past has proven it will only take steps to protect itself. As Sen. Blumenthal declared: “Facebook has weaponized childhood vulnerability against children themselves.” What will it take for us and investors to walk away finally?
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