The endless scroll takes a toll


Gauri Raje, Assistant News Editor

The addictive nature of social media is no secret. Anyone that uses social media is aware of the dangerous algorithms that social networking sites use to attract the attention of users. These algorithms often reinforce insecurities and perpetuate an unrealistic lifestyle.

There have been several instances when past employees of social media companies have spoken out against the negative impact of these algorithms.

A very recent example of this came in the form of the hit Netflix documentary, “The Social Dilemma,” which featured professionals who have worked for companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter; many of them even helped develop the dangerous algorithms that are a characteristic of social media. The resounding message that all of these past employees conveyed was that social media platforms utilize algorithms and artificial intelligence to suck users into a rabbit hole that oftentimes has drastic effects on the user’s mental health. The documentary was an eye opener, especially for many teenagers and young people around the world.

Almost a year later, Frances Haugen, a former employee at Facebook, came out with similar allegations about the social media giant. What made Haugen’s claims stand out and gain credibility were the company documents she leaked, which clearly showed how blatantly the company had ignored warnings about the negative impact of its applications on users.

Haugen was a product manager at Facebook, where she worked on civic integrity issues. It was here that she noted discrepancies between the company’s internal research and its actions. Haugen noticed that, while company research suggested both Facebook and Instagram affected the mental health of users, the company made no effort to curb this impact. She claimed that despite convincing evidence about the same, Facebook chose to prioritize profit over its users. It was because of this that Haugen quit her job, and before leaving, she copied thousands of pages of these internal documents.

Among other things, the documents revealed that algorithms used by Instagram exacerbated mental health issues, especially in young users. 

National Public Radio reported that one of the leaked studies reported that 17% of teen girls said their eating disorders worsened after using Instagram. Another survey revealed that 13.5% of U.K. teen girls said their suicidal thoughts became more frequent after using Instagram as well. There has also been a previous by Facebook researchers, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, that revealed about 32% of teen girls said Instagram made them feel bad about their bodies.

These statistics reinforce the fact that social media worsens mental health issues and has an impact on a person’s self-image. While the leaked documents apply to Facebook and its services, they reveal a lot about the impact of social media on today’s youth.

The scary part about Facebook and its applications is the grasp they have on young minds. The algorithms employed, while profitable, may lead to comparison and self-hatred. Young users of social media are especially at risk because they may not be able to distinguish fact from reality; they may not be able to rationalize the working of these algorithms. As a result, they become part of a cycle where their deepest insecurities and fears are exploited and reinforced by algorithms that in turn make money for companies like Facebook.

The recent revelations by Haugen, about Facebook capitalizing on young users, raises the question of whether social media companies should have so much power and freedom without accountability.

Is the amount of leniency social media companies get to run their business reasonable? Is it right to let companies like Facebook make money off of apps that utilize such harmful algorithms at the expense of the mental health of users?

There has to be accountability to ensure companies like Facebook don’t overstep their boundaries. Facebook is a prime example of how social media preys on the minds of young individuals. Not to mention, the very algorithms that have such negative effects on its users also enable the spread of misinformation. It is high time these so-called social media giants face consequences for the part they play in reinforcing division, hatred and poor mental health.

The recent revelations about Facebook are not surprising, but the credibility of the claims makes them hard to dismiss. Only talk and no action is simply not enough anymore. It is clear no change or reform can be expected from social media companies themselves. They will continue to profit off of young minds and spread misinformation.

The burden to act now rests on the shoulders of Washington. Ensuring that users, particularly those who are at an impressionable age, do not fall prey to social media algorithms is not a partisan issue. Ensuring social media companies do not misuse algorithms to maximize profits and turn a blind eye to user experience is not a partisan issue.

It’s time to hold social media companies responsible for all the damage they do.