By James P. Steyer
Special to The Examiner
Nearly 10 years ago, in my book Talking Back to Facebook, I wrote with concern that research showed “teen girls tend to present overly thin images of themselves on Facebook,” which created a cycle of “pernicious effects” that in some cases could be associated with eating disorders, anorexia or bulimia and other health-related issues. Fast forward to the present day, and Facebook, now with Instagram in tow, is still knowingly operating in harmful ways — and in fact, trying to find new ways to attract teens and tweens to the platform, or in their own words “win with young people.”
Less than 40 miles of Bay Area roadway separate the headquarters of Facebook and Common Sense Media. I have met Mark Zuckerberg several times since I founded the organization nearly two decades ago and we have been working on two sides of the same coin. Every step of the way, Facebook has ignored sound advice on how to improve the platform. If you ask Zuckerberg about Facebook’s reception to my book back then, he will deny that they tried to squash it from ever becoming published. In spite of his failed power play that signaled his belief that the Bay Area is not big enough for the both of us, discussions about the book were taking place in town hall meetings all around Facebook headquarters with concerned parents and policymakers.
Today, the enormity of Facebook’s influence in our lives is undeniable, but with it has come serious consequences for users, especially kids, and zero accountability for Facebook. But now the tides are starting to turn for the much-maligned tech giant.
Thanks to the courage of former Facebook employee Frances Haugen, and others who have risked their professional careers and livelihoods to come forward and tell Facebook’s secrets, it is now just a matter of time for Facebook’s day of reckoning. If we are to have any real chance of holding big tech companies accountable, we will need more courageous employees to come forward, and we will need to support them when they do.
By now, many have read the Facebook Files that exposed the company was withholding troubling internal research from the public and that its “platforms are riddled with flaws that cause harm.” Some of the most damning evidence revealed that Facebook conducted what it called a “teen mental health deep dive” that showed “thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.” Many of these girls, as young as 13, are helpless against a Facebook machine that is powered by algorithms that deliberately amplify hate, misinformation and feeds images to teens of perfectly shaped individuals who they then compare themselves to as the standard of beauty. At Common Sense Media, our recent research shows that six in 10 young people say they encounter racist, sexist, homophobic or body-shaming content on social media either “sometimes” or “often.”
But no amount of research will convince Facebook or Instagram CEO Adam Moserri to do the right thing and keep online users safe. As Haugen noted in a recent television interview, Facebook puts “profit over safety” and “over and over again, chose to optimize for its own interests, like making more money.” So it should come as no surprise that despite calls from Congress, researchers and academics alike for Facebook to reveal what data it collects and what it knows about its users, Facebook’s internal research never saw the light of day until Haugen took it upon herself to do what Zuckerberg has proven incapable of doing — telling the truth.
We now know that for years Facebook had in their possession the research and information that could have been used to make Instagram safer for everyone, especially teens. But instead of making sensible improvements to its existing products such as prohibiting profiling, targeted ads and third-party marketing, they chose to work on developing a new Instagram for kids under the age of 13.
A younger kid version doesn’t solve the problem of underage tweens and older kids on these 13+ sites; it just means even younger kids will join a new service, and Facebook will have their data from an even younger age and all of their social graphs, preferences and online behaviors mapped out. Facebook is not designing these products with anyone’s well-being in mind, especially kids and young tweens. According to internal Facebook documents, the company “identified youth work as a priority for Instagram.” With Facebook’s track record of lying to the public, everyone must question if “youth work” is code for “youth profits” because they can’t be trusted to put what’s good for the public over what’s good for Facebook. And Facebook’s announcement to “pause” Instagram for kids is a real farce. That’s why advocates, policymakers and parents have to continue to keep the spotlight on Facebook and hold them accountable.
While Facebook’s employees are bravely speaking out, its executives here in the Bay Area have shown time and time again that they cannot be trusted to self-regulate. Therefore, we need Congress to step up to the plate. Like the Children’s Television Act of 1990, we need a framework to protect kids from harmful tech and social media. We need to stop manipulative and addictive design (KIDS Act), outlaw tactics that encourage compulsive use (DETOUR Act) and fund more independent research to better understand the impact of tech on our kids — their health, social, emotional and cognitive development (CAMRA Act). And we need to strengthen privacy laws to prohibit companies from amassing detailed profiles of kids that can be used to manipulate them in the first place.
Facebook’s executives are on the wrong side of history. Now it is time to clean up their mess and do what this Bay Area company won’t do themselves: protect kids and teens.
James P. Steyer is founder and CEO of Common Sense Media.