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Teenagers on Instagram may soon be nudged to look the other way on harmful content

Steering teens away from harmful content is Facebook’s response to the recent controversy about Instagram and its effects.

“We are going to introduce something which I think will make a considerable difference, which is where our systems see that a teenager is looking at the same content over and over again, and it is content which may not be conducive to their well being, we will nudge them to look at other content,” Facebook’s vice president of global affairs Nick Clegg said in an interview with CNN. Clegg added that the social media platform was going to roll out a ‘take a break’ feature prompting teens to stay off Instagram for some time and give parents optional controls to supervise teens.

A Facebook spokesperson told The Verge that they have not tested these features yet. The social media giant has been under major scrutiny recently as leaked internal documents, dubbed ‘The Facebook Files’, contained damning revelations about the platform. 

Instagram’s impact on mental health of teenagers.

These new features were announced in response to internal research conducted by Facebook which showed that a large number of teenagers, particularly teenage girls, trace a significant amount of anxiety and mental health problems to Instagram. 

The findings boil down to these observations, apart from the one mentioned above:

  • One in five teenagers said Instagram makes them feel bad about themselves.
  • Teenagers blame Instagram for increased anxiety and depression, “unprompted”.
  • 6–13% of teens who had suicidal thoughts attributed Instagram as a cause.
  • An experiment to hide “likes” from posts didn’t significantly improve mental health outcomes.

Facebook published a point-by-point rebuttal, saying that WSJ mischaracterised internal research. However, Facebook has refused to release the full research data firsthand for critics to analyse.

Why did Facebook pause Instagram Kids? 

In a blog post by Instagram head Adam Mosseri, the company announced that it was halting Instagram Kids for the time being.  

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Instagram said that it will take the time “to work with parents, experts, policymakers and regulators, to listen to their concerns, and to demonstrate the value and importance of this project for younger teens”. It added that critics of “Instagram Kids” would think of this halt as an acknowledgement that the project is a bad idea.

“That’s not the case. The reality is that kids are already online, and we believe that developing age-appropriate experiences designed specifically for them is far better for parents than where we are today,” read the blog post.

What the whistleblower said during the hearing, in brief

Clegg’s CNN interview also touched upon the testimony by whistleblower Francis Haugen who was behind The Facebook Files leak. He said that Facebook is spending $13 billion on measures to make its platform a positive and safe experience for its users.

The interviewer Dana Bash asked Clegg whether Facebook’s algorithm amplified pro-insurrection voices ahead of the attack on the US Capitol building on January 6, 2021. Clegg said he couldn’t give a yes or no answer to the question but added that Facebook’s algorithms should be held to account in the interest of transparency.

Haugen revealed details about how Facebook prioritises its growth over public or user safety in the US Senate hearing. She noted that it underinvests in its safety and integrity departments which deal with misinformation, hate speech, etc., particularly, in non-English speaking countries. Haugen also alleged that Facebook’s content algorithm promotes divisive, polarising content by way of pushing engaging content on people’s feeds, which increases negative sentiments among people.

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