In mid-September, the Wall Street Journal published “The Facebook Files,” a series of investigative reports that was partially based on internal documents leaked by a whistleblower. The overall impression left by the revelations is one of hypocrisy: a company saying in public how seriously they take their responsibility to protect their users from harm and police their content, but in private giving free passes for certain favoured “whitelisted” users and conducting research that reveals how harmful Instagram can be to teenagers, especially girls.

Just how harmful is it?

Time Magazine’s summary of the WSJ articles includes such tidbits as the following. Internal research presented at Facebook showed in 2019 that “Instagram makes body image issues worse for one in three teen girls”. Among teens who reported suicidal thoughts, “6% of American users traced the issue to the photo-sharing app”. Eating disorders and depression are also linked to Instagram use by young people, which according to the article comprise about half of Instagram’s user base. “Young” was not defined, but presumably we are talking about people in their teens and early 20s.

In a Congressional hearing held Sept. 30 in response to the revelations, Facebook’s Antigone Davis, the firm’s global head of safety, disagreed with how the WSJ characterised the company’s research. She emphasised that users benefit from Instagram, which helps them in dealing with the hard issues that beset teens. The reason for the research, she said, was “to make our platform better, to minimise the bad and maximise the good, and to proactively identify where we can improve”. But on Monday, the firm announced that it was pausing its work on a product tentatively called Instagram Kids, designed for users under 13. Of course, anybody who is old enough to type and read can say they are 13 and try to get an Instagram account today, and millions have succeeded. 

One senator drew a parallel between Facebook and the tobacco industry, which concealed internal research for years showing that smoking caused lung cancer and publicly denied the facts it knew about privately. Suicide isn’t lung cancer, but dead is dead. While it’s unlikely that a statistically significant number of teen suicides can be definitively linked to Instagram, it is an unvarnished fact that teen suicides in the US have risen dramatically since the early 2000s, rising from a rate of about 10 per 100,000 in age group 15-19 to 14.5 per 100,000 by 2017, the latest year for which national numbers are available. And COVID-19 has not improved matters in that regard.

Correlation is not causation, and there are many factors besides Instagram that make it hard for teenagers to negotiate life these days. But the question before us is this: does the harm done by Instagram (and similar photo-based media) to teenagers outweigh whatever perceived benefits the services provide?

Phrased that way, the question implies that the proper way to analyse this issue is a cost-benefit study. But I’m not at all sure that’s the right way to do it. For one thing, the benefits are of many different kinds, as are the costs.

The most obvious benefit is financial, to Facebook, its investors, and similar media giants, along with their advertisers who pay Facebook gargantuan fees to sell goods and services. Another category of benefit is whatever good feelings, sensations, and experiences users get from using Instagram and similar products. The parallel to tobacco is relevant, because studies both by Facebook and outsiders show that social-media use is highly addictive, and is purposely designed to be that way. This is an open secret, deplored even by some developers of social media, but it is well known and needs to be considered in any discussion. 

It’s one thing if a mature, responsible adult decides to indulge in an addictive product, but there are reasons that states have minimum ages for purchasing tobacco and alcohol. Society has made a judgment that teenagers below a certain age need to be protected from these substances, because their ability to judge such matters as alcohol or tobacco use is not yet fully developed. Having been a teenager myself, I can vouch for the truth of that statement.

Some states such as Texas have already taken steps to restrict certain social-media firm activities such as banning individuals based on political content. If we as a society decide that the benefits of Instagram to teens are not worth the harms, we could try to make it illegal for them to use it. Under the present social dispensation, that idea sounds almost ludicrous. But in 1965, who would have imagined that a scant thirty years or so later, smokers would be a disdained minority, unable to light up in workplaces, restaurants, or bars, and condemned to puff in freezing weather at least twenty feet from the nearest entrance? Yet it happened, and a big factor in the social turn against smoking was the blatant hypocrisy the tobacco firms indulged in, as investigations later showed.

I have had at least one young person talk to me wistfully about what it was like growing up without social media, saying that he thought his smartphone was one of the biggest differences between my generation and his, and not a good one, either. As powerful as the tobacco interests were, their wings were clipped, and they paid huge sums to states in retribution for the harms that were caused. 

I don’t know what’s going to happen to Facebook in the future with regard to their teenage customers. In the Greek myth about Antigone, she got into trouble with a king who had defeated and killed her brother in battle, and who didn’t want anyone mourning for him or burying him. She tried to anyway and ended up committing suicide. 

Facebook’s Antigone Davis may be trying to bury some facts that refuse to stay buried. With regard to the whistleblower who leaked internal data to the press, she said, “We’ve committed to not retaliating for this individual speaking to the Senate”. But a lawyerly reading of that sentence shows it says nothing about not retaliating for anything else the person did. And if the experience of other whistleblowers is any guide, that person’s career in social media is over, and they might as well start studying for their real-estate license or something else they can do on their own.

This article has been republished with permission from the Engineering Ethics blog.

Karl D. Stephan received the B. S. in Engineering from the California Institute of Technology in 1976. Following a year of graduate study at Cornell, he received the Master of Engineering degree in 1977...