Facebook will publish some of its research on teens and Instagram

The company’s head of safety is testifying at a Senate hearing this week.

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Karissa Bell
September 27th, 2021
In this article: news, gear, instagram, facebook, research
A visitor takes a picture of the Instagram application logo at the Young Entrepreneurs fair in Paris, France, February 7, 2018. REUTERS/Charles Platiau
Charles Platiau / Reuters

Facebook will publish two internal slide decks detailing its research into how Instagram affects teens’ mental health sometime “in the next few days.” Speaking at an online event hosted by The Atlantic, the company’s policy chief Nick Clegg said the company would release the data to Congress before making it available to the public.

“We're just making sure that all the Ts are crossed and the Is are dotted so that we can release it both to Congress and then to the public in the next few days," Clegg said of the slides, some of which have already been made public. His comments come more than 10 days after The Wall Street Journal published an investigation into how Instagram affects the teens who use it. Citing internal research conducted by Facebook, The Journal wrote that “Instagram is harmful for a sizable percentage” of teens, particularly teenage girls.

The investigation prompted immediate pushback from lawmakers, many of whom were already wary of Facebook’s handling of child safety, and its plans to build a version of its service for children under 13. On Monday, Instagram said it would “pause” that work in order to create more “parental supervision tools.” Members of Congress responded saying they want the company to end the project entirely. Facebook’s head of safety is scheduled to testify at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on the subject Thursday.

Now, Facebook seems to be hoping that releasing more of its underlying research could help address concerns from lawmakers and others. In a separate statement published Sunday, the company’s top researcher suggested that The Wall Street Journal had mischaracterized its research. Clegg went a step further Monday, saying that the reporting based on documents “leaked by someone who clearly feels they have some points to make.”

“If you read the decks, and then compare it with some of the assertions that, you know, Instagram is toxic for all teens and so on, I don't think any reasonable person … would say that the research sustains that claim,” Clegg said. “When the dust settles people will see that we're just sincerely trying to kind of — like external researchers — are trying to work out what the complex relationship is between individuals, given their own individual circumstances, and their lives and their use of social media.”

A Facebook spokesperson confirmed the company would release “two decks” that were central to The Journal report, but didn’t elaborate on the timing of the release.

But the decks alone are unlikely to quiet Facebook’s critics. For one, Facebook’s own rebuttal of The Wall Street Journal reporting appears to undermine the significance of its own research. “This research, some of which relied on input from only 40 teens, was designed to inform internal conversations about teens’ most negative perceptions of Instagram,” Facebook VP Pratiti Raychoudhury wrote. “It did not measure causal relationships between Instagram and real-world issues.”

It also raises questions about how Facebook will present the data it does make public. Last month, the company released a report on “widely viewed content” on its platform. The report was meant to rebuff criticism that News Feed favors polarizing content. But researchers outside the company quickly poked holes in the report, and said it was emblematic of Facebook’s larger transparency issues, particularly when it comes to working with outside researchers.

Which is why it’s notable that Clegg would invoke “external researchers” in his defense of the company. If Instagram isn’t actually harmful to most teens, as the company is claiming, then researchers not on Facebook’s payroll may be positioned to credibly make that point. Yet researchers say the company has made data increasingly difficult to access. And in some cases, the company has actively blocked outsiders from studying its platform, like when it recently disabled the personal Facebook accounts of researchers at New York University and then provided “misleading” explanations about its reasons for doing so, according to the FTC. (Incidentally, the researcher at the center of that controversy is testifying in a separate Congressional hearing this week.)

They may seem like unrelated issues. But if Facebook had better relationships with researchers outside the company, and made more of its own findings public it might be better able to head off internal critics who “have some points to make.”

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