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Facebook: The New Big Tobacco or A Media Moral Panic?

Social media changes the way people relate to each other whether they use it or not, and whether they use it sparingly or heavily.

· 20 min read
Facebook: The New Big Tobacco or A Media Moral Panic?

Editor's note:

Former Facebook product manager turned whistleblower, Frances Haugen, recently testified before US Congress in what has been described as the biggest expose in Facebook's history. Central to Haugen's testimony has been the assertion that Facebook knows about the social, psychological, and political harms that its platform creates, yet fails to adequately mitigate these harms by adjusting its business model.

Facebook Whistleblower Frances Haugen testifies before Senate Commerce Committee
Facebook Whistleblower Frances Haugen testifies before Senate Commerce Committee

Quillette recently hosted Jonathan Haidt on the podcast, who discussed social media's potential to harm vulnerable teenagers, claims which were echoed in an article written by Claire Lehmann.

Yet other science journalists, such as Stuart Ritchie at Unherd, and John Tierney at City Journal, have argued that the case against social media, and Instagram in particular, is built on hype not science.

To dig further into the nuances of the issue, Quillette decided to survey a range of experts working in the areas of psychology, psychiatry, and mental health on their perceptions of Facebook's influence, and their interpretation of the data. What follows is intended to be a starting point for a longer discussion, as Quillette believes that the impact of social media may be one of the most important issues of the century.

The New McDonald's

Tanveer Ahmed - Psychiatrist and author of Fragile Nation

Facebook is both the new smoking and the new McDonald's. All rely on cheap dopamine hits and incite moral panic. Be it fatty food, nicotine or garnering likes, they represent a continuum of consumer products perfecting the co-opting of our biological vulnerabilities. In mental health it is especially problematic for teenagers.

Only this month, before the whistleblower Frances Haugen spoke against Facebook, it emerged that Instagram was well aware of its propensity to magnify body image concerns among girls. The company opted against making their findings public or modifying their algorithms. Much like Big Tobacco and Big Pharma at their worst, social media companies appear to sweep any internal negative findings under a corporate carpet.

In my daily practice, it is clear that social media tends to be a magnifier of pre-existing personality traits. The extroverts post more and are comfortable in projecting their best selves. They are also more adept at communicating with others and organising physical meetings.

Meanwhile the socially anxious may have an account and will scroll through their feed, but will rarely post in fear of inviting negative scrutiny. They are also most prone to experiencing negative social comparison.

This is all heightened in adolescence when we most desire belonging and peer approval. The relational aggression favoured by girls can ratchet up a notch, not to mention have negative behaviours like self harm normalised on some sites and chat groups.

Bullying can feel well beyond one or two people that might occur in a physical playground, to tens or hundreds on a social media site, a stain that can then be marked permanently. This was a critical factor in the suicide of Australian teenager Dolly Everett in 2018, one that sent shockwaves through my country.

Michael Dougherty wrote in a 2019 National Review article titled “The Social-Media Decade” that: “Social media’s birth and gestation in colleges and high schools seems in some way to have given it a quality that remakes the whole world as a giant school.”

Stop Opening Up About Your Mental Health Online
Instagram being #HereForYou? Hahaha, please

Much like those playgrounds from our youth the most minor social transgressions can erupt into one’s humiliation and exile. The pandemic has accelerated all those trends that teens already live with; a principally digital existence, Big Data algorithms, and a perception of constant surveillance. But it is impossible to go back.

Social media’s capacity to connect and democratise cannot be underestimated. While the fiercest debates about its negatives are occurring in Western countries, sites like Facebook are an outlet for free expression in much of the developing world. My relatives in Bangladesh speak much more freely online and consider seeing slices of my Australian life as a godsend.

It allows for the swift spread of information, bypassing government censors and bringing together otherwise disparate people around a cause. This is also why authoritarian leaders such as those in China or the Middle East opt to ban some outlets altogether, or at least become more adept at manipulating their content.

Let’s not overreach. Much like Big Macs, the platforms are overwhelmingly enjoyable used in moderation. But the tide has clearly turned. When life’s purpose has become primarily about emotional fulfillment, social media sites prey on the most psychologically vulnerable. Both at a personal and political level, there is a momentum to regulate.

A Media Moral Panic

Christopher Ferguson - Research Psychologist and author of How Madness Shaped History

The world was stunned in September when the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) revealed that internal Facebook (FB) studies linked Instagram (which they own) to negative mental health outcomes, particularly for teen girls. Most of this came from PowerPoint slides that had been leaked to the WSJ and which the WSJ subsequently made public. The headlines all but wrote themselves. People already loathed FB and other social media, even as we consumed it in copious amounts, and this episode smacked of the cigarette industry’s internal studies linking smoking to death.

Only the cigarette industry had conducted real studies, whereas FB had not. Quickly, scholars such as Stuart Ritchie, Candice Odgers, Vicky Rideout and myself, noted that the research in question was not sufficient to support the larger narrative of Instagram causing suicide or depression in girls. Most of the FB studies were small and even the larger ones used crude, leading questions such as asking respondents if they thought Instagram made them feel bad. However, people misattribute the cause of their own problems on a regular basis. And the negative answers may have been provoked not only by the leading questions but by past negative news coverage on social media, with respondents remembering past headlines blaming social media for poor mental health. Yes, that means news media are unwittingly creating their own headline treadmill.

I was recently involved with a big meta-analytic review of research in this area, which included members of the media psychology divisions of the American Psychological Association, Psychological Society of Ireland and British Psychological Society. Much of the evidence even from published studies is of mediocre quality but, we concluded, overall the evidence cannot support links between social media and negative mental health outcomes.

So why do politicians and the general public fall all over themselves to believe a few junk FB studies (which, to be fair, was a self-inflicted wound) and ignore the larger data? This is, of course, a classic moral panic. People are worried about teen suicide as, in the US, teen suicide particularly among girls, has been increasing. That’s not the case in many other high-tech countries, but if it’s not US data, who cares, right?

Suicide is, of course, a legitimate problem, but we have a curious case of the parable of the blind men each touching a part of the elephant. After all, according to the same US data both the absolute numbers of suicides and the raw increase in suicides is much higher among lower tech using middle-aged adults than teens (specifically, white middle aged men and young Native American men have the highest per capita suicide rates). By looking at one aspect of suicide (teen girls) and ignoring other aspects of suicide (middle aged adults), even some scholars have misdiagnosed the problem.

Some scholars have specifically pointed to increased teen suicide as an indicator of the problem with social media. However, this is a classic ecological fallacy. It is reminiscent of earlier efforts to link media violence to violent crime waves which subsequently fell apart when those crime waves vanished even as media violence soared. Given issues like suicide tend to be cyclical, I suspect teen girl suicides will eventually fall again, even with increased screen use, and scholars referencing it now will be in an awkward position. One can’t reference data when it’s convenient, then ignore it when it is not.

There’s plenty not to like about big social media companies … discourse on their platforms is often toxic, and there are real concerns with both privacy and the potential for de facto censorship originating from such powerful companies. But this moral panic over suicide is the wrong issue and merely distracting us from other issues that do matter.

The Multiple Audience Problem

Bill Von Hippel - Social Psychologist and author of The Social Leap

In face-to-face conversations, people adjust their tone and word choice to match the knowledge and attitudes of their listener. Even when the content remains the same, we naturally speak differently to our children, friends, and rivals. Tailoring the message to the audience becomes difficult when there are more than two people in a conversation, particularly if some of them hold diametrically opposed views. This “multiple-audience problem” poses a challenge to speakers if they wish to communicate different things to different audiences. By way of example, when soldiers are captured and forced to publicly renounce their country, they typically read prepared scripts in a wooden manner, often including grammatical errors that were introduced by their captors but would never be made by native speakers. Through such a strategy, captured soldiers communicate to their compatriots back home that they don’t endorse what they are saying while simultaneously appearing to pass on the message demanded by their captors.

Social media suffers from the captured-soldier problem. One of the reasons that tribalism triumphs over nuance on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram is that communication on these platforms nearly always involves multiple audiences. If I get into an ideological argument with you over coffee, my communication is focused on you and my persuasive goal is usually best achieved by adopting a more moderate stance, pointing out where our views overlap, and expressing empathy and understanding for your perspective. If we get into the same argument on social media, my goal to persuade you takes a back seat to my need to demonstrate my bona fides to other members of my ideological camp. The last thing I want to do on Twitter is express empathy and understanding for an opposing ideological viewpoint. Such actions would only brand me as a traitor to the cause.

We derisively refer to gratuitous expressions of group loyalty as “virtue signalling,” but virtue signalling evolved for good reason. There was no one more important to our ancestors than other members of their group, as it was our capacity for group coordination that brought us to the top of the food chain despite our lack of biological weaponry (such as huge muscles, claws, and fangs). Because other groups of humans are the only entities as lethal as we are, by the time we evolved into Homo sapiens the great predators on the savannah were no longer the primary threat to our survival—rather, other groups of humans were. Virtue signalling was one of the ways we retained the trust and support of our fellow group members in the face of frequent and deadly inter-group competition.

Hamas Cheerleaders Are All Over Instagram
Since 10/7, young social-media users have been inundated with memes that present terrorists as social justice champions.

Does that mean we’re doomed to live in a world of social media divided into us and them, dominated by trolls with their caps lock on? Possibly, but not necessarily. In today’s world, groups can also compete to be regarded as the most reasonable, the most openminded, or the most rational. By way of example, I’m a member of two methodology groups on Facebook. In one of them (Psychological Methods Discussion Group, with 40,000 members), anything goes and people can be very biting in their criticisms. The other (PsychMAP, with 11,000 members) is akin to a safe space for stats nerds—calling someone a methodological terrorist will get you tossed out on your ear. The difference in membership numbers suggests that people prefer free speech, but that doesn’t alter the fact that 11,000 people have joined a group dedicated solely to chatting nicely about psychological methods; a clear proof of concept that group norms can create social media platforms supporting constructive engagement.

Projection and Dehumanization

Lisa Marchiano - Psychotherapist and author of Motherhood: Facing and Finding Yourself

In the Black Mirror episode “Men Against Fire,” soldiers are given an implant that alters their perception of reality, causing them to see their enemies not as people, but as dirty, sharp-toothed monsters called roaches. When we don’t see our enemies as human, it is much easier to kill them. The science fiction implant of the episode is an astute analogy for our innate ability to dehumanize one another through psychological projection. Through projection, we see the least likable parts of ourselves as belonging to someone else. This process can feed an “us versus them” view of the world, in which those who oppose us seem all bad, and those on our side appear to embody all goodness.

The Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung used the term “shadow” to refer to those aspects of our personality that are deemed unacceptable. We all have a shadow. Greed, arrogance, aggression, selfishness, and pettiness are just some examples of traits that we all possess by virtue of being human, but which we might not want to admit are part of us. We tend to disavow awareness of these traits in ourselves and project them onto others who, for one reason or another, give us a “hook” on which to hang the projection. Social media creates abundant opportunities for projection.

In social media debates, our opposing interlocutors are often anonymous and almost always unknown to us personally. Like angry drivers in a massive traffic tangle, we can make a faceless other the target of our digital road rage. Those with whom we disagree are dehumanized. We ourselves feel a license to say things we would likely never say to someone with whom we were connected in real life because we can hide behind an anonymous profile, or at least take refuge in the impersonal nature of social media exchanges.

Jung stressed that projection is normal. It’s often the first way that we encounter parts of ourselves of which we hadn’t before been conscious. When we have an outsized negative reaction to someone, it is usually the case that we are projecting some part of ourself we don’t want to know about. Becoming curious about this can lead to greater self-understanding, a deepened capacity for empathy, and an ability to hold the tension of the opposites. Unfortunately, this can be a painful and humbling process. It is much easier to see all of the badness “out there.” Doing so allows us to occupy the smug terrain of moral outrage, helping us to feel superior.

This ability to dehumanize individuals and groups by projecting our own worst qualities onto them is a prerequisite for tribalism, racism, and war. Though shadow projection is a fundamental human predisposition, social media may be amplifying this tendency, making it more difficult for us to hear or attend to the viewpoints—or humanity—of others. Becoming more curious about our tendency to get inflamed with righteous indignation when interacting on social media may be vital if we are to restore the ability to engage in constructive discourse needed to solve the complex problems we face. As Jung said, “The best political, social, and spiritual work we can do is to withdraw the projection of our shadow onto others.”

Teen Mental Health Is In Crisis

Jean Twenge - Research Psychologist and author of iGen

Twice as many American teens were depressed in 2019 than in 2011, and rates of self-harm, suicide attempts, and suicide rose as well. More teens said they were unhappy, and more experienced loneliness. These increases were the most acute among young adolescent girls and appeared in objectively measured behaviors, not just in symptoms (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Rates of self-harm and suicide attempts by self-poisoning (out of 1,000) and rate of suicide (out of 100,000) among young adolescent girls, US, 2001-2019 Sources: Spiller et al (2019); WISQARS nonfatal injuries and fatal injuries databases, Centers for Disease Control

NOTE: The rate for self-harm and self-poisonings is out of 1,000 population; the rate for suicide is out of 100,000 population, so self-harm and self-poisoning are 100 times more common than suicide in this group. Self-poisonings are among 13- to 15-year-old girls; self-harm and suicide is among 12- to 14-year-old girls. The rate for self-harm only includes injuries serious enough to be treated in a hospital emergency department. The rate for suicide attempts for self-poisoning includes only those reported to regional Poison Control Centers.

These increases occurred alongside a wholescale change in how teens socialized and communicated with each other; getting together in person declined and communicating using digital media increased.

The breakdown in teen mental health is not limited to the US. In a recent paper, Jon Haidt and I analyzed data from the more than one million teens around the world who participated in the PISA survey between 2000 and 2018. In 36 out of 37 countries, teen loneliness increased, particularly after 2012. That included increases in Australia, Brazil, France, Mexico, New Zealand, Poland, Russia, Sweden, Thailand, and the UK. The increase in teen loneliness was unrelated to unemployment rates, income inequality, or total fertility rates—but occurred in lockstep with smartphone access and internet use.

It is disingenuous to suggest, as Chris Ferguson does, that we should dismiss the increases in suicide among teen girls because their overall number of suicide deaths is lower than that of white middle-aged men. More middle-aged men than teen girls have always engaged in suicide, due to factors such as financial issues, divorce, aging, and illness. But social media and smartphones have only surged in popularity in the last decade. Thus, it’s more relevant to consider how suicide rates have changed over this time.

There, it’s no contest: Between 2012 and 2019, the suicide rate for white middle-aged men in the US increased three percent. For girls 12 to 14, it increased 138 percent.

The smaller absolute numbers for suicide among teen girls also conceal a much larger number of suicide attempts. Among 13- to 15-year-old girls, suicide attempts via just one method—self-poisoning—increased from 12,534 in 2011 to 27,498 in 2018. That is both a high absolute number (14,694 more self-poisonings) and a high rate of change (119 percent, more than doubling).

And will this argument fall apart if teen suicide and self-harm stops increasing? No, because that depends on trends in social media use (which could flatten or go down) and other cultural changes—including the effect of the pandemic, which is going to make determining causes for mental health trends after 2020 much more difficult. But we already know that teen suicide increased in lockstep with social media and internet use between 2011 and 2019.

That’s not just due to the individual impact of social media on emotions and body image that Facebook documented in its own studies. It’s also due to the effect on the group: Social media changes the way people relate to each other whether they use it or not, and whether they use it sparingly or heavily. A teen girl who uses social media heavily may experience depression and body image issues, but a teen girl who eschews social media often feels left out. The result: More loneliness and depression for everyone.

That said, it’s still important to know whether social media use and depression are related among individuals. Unlike in the Facebook research, many studies have asked teens separate questions about how much time they spend on social media and their mental health symptoms. The best data in this area comes from large studies with validated measures of mental health symptoms and social media use measured in hours per day. Here are the results of such a study, based on more than 10,000 adolescents in the UK (see Figure 2). Girls who used social media five hours a day were three times more likely to be depressed than girls who did not use social media, with a similar though less pronounced association for boys.

Figure 2: Percent of UK adolescents with clinically significant symptoms of depression by levels of social media use, by gender. Source: Kelly et al (2019) Lancet eClinical Medicine

It’s common for researchers to dismiss effects in this area as “small.” Does a doubling or tripling in depression from no use to heavy use seem small to you? I doubt it. When effects are described as “small,” researchers are almost always citing studies that examined screen time overall (including TV), not social media or internet use specifically, or they cite studies with poor measures of social media use (such as whether a teen uses social media every day—which nearly all teens now do). In addition, few of these other studies examine boys and girls separately, yet both the increase in depression rates and the link between social media use and depression is larger among girls.

The Facebook research probed a different question: Why did Instagram sometimes lead to negative feelings? The internal Facebook documents include a study of more than 50,000 people from 10 countries finding that one-third of all respondents, and half of teen girls, compare their appearance to others’ on Instagram—consistent with many outside academic studies. Those appearance-based comparisons, the study found, peaked when users were 13 to 18 and then declined. That’s consistent with the academic research finding that the links to depression are stronger among girls.

Even the best-designed correlational studies cannot tell us if social media causes depression or depression causes social media. Longitudinal and experimental studies suggest at least part of the causal arrow goes from social media to depression. However, it’s equally important to consider how social media influences people at the group level—why teen depression increased so sharply as social media and smartphones became popular. To explain the group effects by depression causing technology use, you’d have to argue that some completely unknown factor increased depression among teens, and that led them to buy smartphones and spend more time on social media. It’s not a very plausible argument.

It’s now been more than four years since I argued in my book, iGen, that social media and smartphones might have something to do with the rise in teen depression, given the large impact these technologies had on how teens lived their lives. It is difficult to think of another factor that had such a substantial influence on teens’ everyday lives during this time period. Some of the effects of technology may have been good, but the extremely troubling trends in teen mental health strongly suggest the negative has outweighed the positive.

You Are Infinitely Replaceable

Diana Fleischman - Evolutionary Psychologist

As others here have pointed out, the evidence for the harm of social media on adolescents and young people is mixed. There are also many benefits to social media that we must evaluate in order to figure out what kinds of trade-offs can and should be made to mitigate potential harm. One neglected piece of the larger picture about the impact of social media is how it interacts with our evolved social psychology.

Evolutionary mismatch is the idea that the current environment differs in many important and fundamental ways relative to the environment in which we evolved. Many of these differences, like antibiotics, education, and food abundance are responsible for greater human health and well-being in many domains compared to our ancestors. But, mismatch refers to the differences that can cause disorder, dysfunction, and disease. For example, the difference between the environment in which we evolved where calorie dense foods were difficult to acquire and our current environment where they are easily available results in a mismatch where obesity and diabetes are more common now than ever before in human history. Most fast food companies make money by exploiting a psychology that evolved in an environment of relative scarcity, providing the fat and sugar that we most crave and enjoy.

Ending Discrimination by Twitter
Gender critical feminists are among those who have been excluded from Twitter for years. The time is right for a correction.

Like fast food, social media is designed to optimally exploit our evolved social psychology—monopolizing our attention by providing social information, cues, and opportunities that were relatively scarce at previous points in history. We evolved in relatively small face to face societies for about 99 percent of our human evolutionary history. Social media especially exploits our sensitivity to our relative status, inclusion, replaceability, attractiveness, and our ability to present ourselves in the most flattering possible light.

Compared to the small-scale societies in which we evolved, there are much bigger disparities in relative status and wealth than at most previous points in history. Even monkeys are willing to “pay” to view pictures of other monkeys who are high in status. Attention towards high status others drives traffic on all social media. But compared to our evolutionary history, there are thousands of people higher in status than you who are curating their social media presence to seem as high in status as possible. This can create positive aspirational and ambitious motivations, but it can also cause envy and resentment. This may be one reason that China has banned people from flaunting wealth on their TikTok platform, Douyin.

One of the main ways to become a valuable social partner in small scale societies is to have skills, traits, or strengths that make you irreplaceable, or otherwise valuable to a group. Up until very recently, in any group, you were probably the best at doing something. Social media continually gives us clues that we are replaceable, because there are hundreds of other people who are better at what we do well, or have more of our very best characteristics.

Imagine you met yourself in an alternate reality. This alternate reality self is more beautiful than you, more competent than you, has better relationships than you, and is always happier than you. This is a person you probably already know. It is the person that—through filters, and curation—you present on social media. This person doesn’t just fill your social niche, they do everything you do better than you can do. This is the uneasy relationship we have with the self that we present online. This can lead to a pervasive form of social anxiety akin to imposter syndrome. Social media results in a toxic mix of the pleasure of curating and seeing the best version of ourselves and discovering that these best versions of ourselves have a merely mediocre rank in the largest social hierarchy on Earth.

Adolescents may be especially prone to these social comparison effects. More than older adults they are trying to find their social niche and trying to figure out how best to compete for status. The hours that young people are spending on social media are likely displacing developing real-world skills and relationships, that are likely, in the long term, to be more fulfilling.

When we strive for an unreachable goal, the motivation to disengage is adaptive. It reroutes our energy towards something more achievable. Social media both gives us valuable social information that we compulsively consume, and gives us cues that we are in an unwinnable social contest. Perpetually unachievable goals often spiral into depression. And, what we may be forgetting in this larger conversation is that many adults are just as prone to the negative effects of social media as adolescents.

I’m glad that the possible negative mental health ramifications of social media use, and the characteristics of the people who are most vulnerable, are being further explored. Personally, I use apps like RescueTime and Freedom to limit the negative effects of social media on my life. But, I’m skeptical of top down social media regulation. It’s far too easy for the beneficial free exchange of ideas to be encumbered by calls to end discrimination, improve mental health, or stop cyberbullying. Top down regulation also might limit the proliferation of other social media platforms. Perhaps there is a way to use social media in our future that optimizes for well-being, connection, and education rather than the wholesale exploitation of our evolved psychology.

If you would like to contribute to our discussion on social media, please send your contributions to You can also continue the discussion in the Quillette Circle.

For more:

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