Scholars pen open letter to Facebook calling for transparency on youth mental health

Nearly 300 international academics have signed an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg calling for greater transparency and independent oversight of META’s research in youth mental health.

It comes two months after whistleblower Frances Hogan told the US Congress that the social network was causing harm to young users and “deliberately concealing vital information from the public”.

In the open letter, the Global Alliance of Scientists stated that Meta’s research “is being conducted behind closed doors and without independent oversight.”

“With three billion people using Meta platforms for socializing, entertainment, and work, it is highly plausible that these virtual environments have far-reaching effects on the mental health of younger users – in both positive and negative ways,” the letter says.

“While we applaud these attempts to understand how your platforms can impact the mental health of young people, we believe that the systematic and secretive ways in which your teams conduct this important work are misguided and in their current state doomed to failure.”

A Meta spokesperson said understanding the impact of social media on young people’s mental health has been an “industry-wide challenge”.

“A survey from just last month indicated that more American teens use TikTok and YouTube than Instagram or Facebook, which is why we need an industry-wide effort to understand the role of social media in young people’s lives.”

Independent research “needs access”

The letter calls for “independent and transparent reviews of all past, current and future research” on youth mental health along with the company contributing to independent studies, including in non-English speaking countries.

It also suggests expanding the Meta Oversight Board to conduct independent mental health risk assessments of the platform.

“The only agenda here is excellent and accurate science,” said Catherine Modecki, Associate Professor Catherine Modecki of the School of Applied Psychology at Griffith University, of the 286 sites signed so far.

“It is a call to say internal standards [of Meta’s research] It must match external standards of scientific rigor,” said Dr. Modiki.

She said the peer review process was necessary “to look for the integrity of the method, the integrity of the inferences, the consideration of the sample, and the questions we ask.”

The woman in the red shirt is smiling
Associate Professor Catherine Modecki is one of hundreds of signatories.(Supplied: Catherine Modecki)

“We don’t see it happening on Facebook. There is absolutely no transparency regarding the science that’s going on,” she said.

“And there is no access for independent scientists to access the data within Facebook itself.

“In the absence of transparency, very negative stories have emerged from the media [and] It’s really hard to counter any of that without having access to what’s going on.”

Unclear research criteria

An internal report leaked on Facebook detailed surveys with a group of teens who blamed Instagram for increased rates of depression and anxiety.

“This reaction was unconvincing and consistent across all groups,” the report said.

While stating that issues around “social comparison and perfectionism” are not new, the report noted that “young people are engaging with this on an unprecedented scale.”

However, annotated notes from Meta made it clear that these conclusions “were not intended to be representative of the experiences of all adolescents,” with a survey size of only 40 participants.

Meta has also introduced new Instagram functionality to “stay away” from harmful content and urge teens to “take a break”.

But Dr Modiki said Meta’s internal search criteria were “not entirely clear”.

“There is an acknowledgment that the research should be done within Facebook, of course. On the other hand, it doesn’t happen in tandem with independent scholarship,” she said.

“The lack of access to data in some ways fuels this myth that it’s all toxic, and it’s all a problem.”

Unprecedented opportunity

Modiki said external research has found “mixed findings” about the impact of social media on mental health.

“The research suggests that for children who are already at risk of developing depression or challenging body image, their problems may be exacerbated online,” she said.

“But overall we don’t see this overall negative effect.

“I have a study that shows that using the Internet in moderate amounts to deal with stressors can be really beneficial for teens.”

Dr. Modiki said access to internal meta data would be “the most unprecedented opportunity that exists in terms of youth support”.

“There is an obligation, given that this is where young people spend their time, to open up,” she said.

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