The fall of 2021 has been filled with a steady stream of media attention claiming that Meta’s social media platforms Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram pose a threat to mental health of users and well-being, radicalize, polarize users and spreading misinformation.
Are these technologies – embraced by billions – kill people and erode democracy? Or is this just another moral panic?
According to Meta’s PR team and a handful contrarian academics and journalists, there are indications that social media does not cause harm and the overall picture is unclear. They cite seemingly conflicting studies, imperfect access to data, and the difficulty of establishing causality to support this view.
Some of these researchers surveyed social media users and concluded that social media use is at most minor negative consequences on individuals. These results do not seem consistent with years of journalistic reporting, Metas leaked internal data, common sense intuition and the lived experience of people.
Teens struggle with their self-esteem, and it doesn’t seem far-fetched to suggest that browsing Instagram could make that worse. Likewise, it’s hard to imagine so many people refusing to get vaccinated, becoming partisan or succumbing to conspiracy theories in the days before social media.
So who’s right? As a researcher who studies collective behavior“I see no conflict between the research (methodological bickering aside), leaks and people’s intuition. Social media can have catastrophic consequences, even if the average user experiences only minimal consequences.
The blind spot of averaging
To see how this works, take a look at a world where Instagram has a rich-get-richer and poor-get-poorer effect on users’ well-being. A majority, those who are already doing well, find that Instagram provides social affirmation and helps them stay in touch with friends. A minority, those who struggle with depression and loneliness, see these messages and feel worse.
If you put them together in a study, you may not see much change over time. This could explain why findings from surveys and panels can claim minimal impact on average. More generally, small groups in a larger sample have a hard time changing the mean.
But if we zoom in on the most at-risk people, many of them may have changed from occasionally sad to mildly depressed or from mildly depressed to dangerous. This is exactly what Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen reported in her congressional testimony: Instagram creates a downward spiral feedback loop among the most vulnerable teenagers.
The inability of this type of research to capture the smaller but still significant numbers of people at risk – the tail of distribution – is compounded by the need to measure a range of human experiences in discrete steps. When people rate their well-being from a low of one to a high of five, “one” can mean anything from breaking up with a partner they didn’t like at all to urgently in need of crisis intervention to stay alive. These nuances are buried in the context of population averages.
A history of averaging damage
The tendency to ignore harm in the margins isn’t unique to mental health or even social media impacts. It’s a common mistake to let most of the experience obscure the fate of smaller groups, and I’d say these are often the people society should be most concerned about.
It can also be a pernicious tactic. Both tobacco companies and scientists once argued that premature death among some smokers was not a serious concern because most people who smoked a cigarette do not die from lung cancer.
Pharmaceutical companies have defended their aggressive marketing tactics by claiming that the vast majority of people treated with opioids get relief from pain without dying from an overdose. In doing so, they’ve traded the vulnerable for the average and steered the conversation toward benefits, often measured in a way that obscures the very real harm done to a minority — but still substantial — group of people.
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Lack of harm to many is not incompatible with serious harm to a few. With most of the world using some form of social media, I think it’s important to listen to the voices of concerned parents and struggling teens as they point to Instagram as a source of distress. Likewise, it is important to recognize that the COVID-19 pandemic has extended because: misinformation on social media has scared some people to take a safe and effective vaccine. These lived experiences are important pieces of evidence about the damage social media is doing.
Does Meta have the answer?
Determining causality from observational data is challenging, so challenging that progress on this front de 2021 Nobel in economics. And social scientists are not well positioned to conduct randomized controlled trials to definitively establish causality, especially for social media platform design choices, such as changing the way content is filtered and displayed.
But Meta does. The company has petabytes of human behavior data, many social scientists on its payroll, and the ability to run randomized control trials in parallel with millions of users. They conduct such experiments all the time to understand how best to… grab the attention of users, down to the color, shape, and size of each button.
Meta could come up with irrefutable and transparent evidence that their products are harmless, even to the vulnerable, if it exists. Did the company choose not to conduct such experiments or did it conduct them and decide not to share the results?
Regardless, Meta’s decision to release and highlight data on average effects instead is telling.