Members Only | October 6, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Your neighborhood sociologist: You are not an algorithm

It's time to "disrupt your feed."

Image courtesy of The Wall Street Journal.
Image courtesy of The Wall Street Journal.

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The Wall Street Journal is publishing an investigative reporting series on Facebook entitled “The Facebook Files.” In its eighth installment at the time of this writing, the reporting draws from internal documents from the company, including “research reports, online employee discussions and drafts of presentations to senior management.” 

One particularly explosive piece concerned Facebook-owned Instagram and its toxicity for teen girls. According to the WSJ’s investigation, internal documents showed that Facebook knew this from their own research. Specifically, the use of Instagram was associated with body image issues for teen girls and those teen girls blamed the platform for increased rates of anxiety and depression. 

Researchers have known for quite some time that social media can have negative impacts on its users. (That’s also common sense.) But the fact that Facebook had done its own testing, saw this relationship and yet suppressed the information has rankled many. And it should. 

Researchers have known for quite some time that social media can have negative impacts on its users. (That’s also common sense.) But the fact that Facebook had done its own testing, saw this relationship and yet suppressed the information has rankled many. And it should.  

Antigone Davis, Facebook’s head of safety, was brought before a Senate panel to testify about Instagram’s effects on mental health. Davis said the WSJ misinterpreted Facebook’s research. This echoes the company’s response to the above allegations. It posted a slide from their research on their website, saying that “It is simply not accurate that this research demonstrates Instagram is ‘toxic’ for teen girls.”

Social media and self image
Facebook may dispute the specifics of its internal research. Indeed, I believe the company is by and large correct. The WSJ overstepped in its interpretation of its research. One cannot use these survey results to show the use of Instagram caused anxiety and depression in teen girls. Moreover, even if there is an association, it needs to be placed in the context of the overall Instagram experience. There are many benefits to using the platform. Facebook’s research demonstrates it. 

But I don’t think there’s any doubt that using social media can and often does negatively impact its users. The working model of human behavior is that we make meaning by interacting with the world around us — by way of the people we communicate with, the media we take in, what we see happening to others and so on. The information we take in helps us build an understanding of the world. 

Thus, a logical derivation would be that social media — indeed all media — will have some influence on its users. The question is what that influence is? It could be as minor as being in a temporary good mood after watching YouTube videos about men accidentally getting hit by various projectiles in the crotch. It could be as major as going down a Facebook rabbit hole about immigration and emerging with the belief that Mexicans are trying to take over the country.  

Dr. Christia Spears Brown, a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky, recently wrote a piece for The Conversation that detailed a theory explaining why Instagram is particularly influential on teenagers and what scholars currently know about its impacts:

While all social media allows users to be selective in what they show the world, Instagram is notorious for its photo editing and filtering capabilities. Plus, that is the platform popular among celebrities, models and influencers … 

For teens, this seamless integration of celebrities and retouched versions of real-life peers presents a ripe environment for upward social comparison, or comparing yourself to someone who is “better” in some respect.

In other words, Instagram is unique in its ability to produce invidious distinctions between the pretty and the plain, the handsome and the homely. So even if Facebook disputes the WSJ’s particular take on their research, this does not then discount the link between their platform and its contribution to teens developing a negative body image. 

Disrupting their feeds
If we start from the assumption that the information we take in will influence how we see ourselves, then a possible response is to change the information we take in. Teens don’t have to leave Instagram. Instead, they can change the types of content they see.   

A 2019 study by the UK charity The Female Lead provides empirical support for this theoretical assertion. The study was called “Disrupting the Feed,” and a write-up of the study summarized its conclusions:

Most girls limited their social media interests to beauty, fashion, and reality TV. Boys, meanwhile, had an average of 12 different interests. 

By following new and inspiring people, teenagers can set their digital footprints on a new path, with social media algorithms showing a more diverse feed as a result. 

Introducing more positive role models into teenage girls’ feeds resulted in more positive actions in the offline world, with girls having higher and more focused personal and career aspirations. But it also prompted more positive interactions with social media overall. 

In essence, one can change the algorithm, as it were, so the content being displayed on your feed makes you feel good about yourself. This insight is being brought into the school curriculum in the UK.

I think parents need to be involved. As children reach their teenage years, they distance themselves from their parents. Teens look to peers to establish cultural norms. But that does not mean parents have no role. They are in an excellent position to help teens “disrupt their feeds.” 

Parents have some insight into what their children like to do and their strengths and weaknesses. These qualities are often hard for people to identify in themselves — even as adults. Parents are (hopefully) trusted outside observers who can suggest to teens possible positive role models or, at the very least, suggest paths to go down. 

Although I have no teenagers myself, my interactions with young people suggest that they are rather clueless about successful “normal” people — or even the particular industries in which a “normal” person would find meaning and success. I can imagine a parent doing some quick research and saying, “Since you like technology, have you considered following Katie Moussouris?” Or “I noticed you liked writing. Maybe you’d want to follow Porochista Khakpour?” 

These suggestions could start that teen on a positive path of learning more about the people and the industry they find interesting. 

The good news is that there is something to be done. Parents don’t have to watch powerlessly while their teenage girls suffer low self-esteem because of their Instagram use.

Rod Graham is the Editorial Board's neighborhood sociologist. A professor at Virginia's Old Dominion University, he researches and teaches courses in the areas of cyber-crime and racial inequality. His work can be found at Follow him @roderickgraham.

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