We Don't Have Good Data About Social Media Harming Teenagers, But We Shouldn't Write This Off As A "Moral Panic," Either

I heard you like nuance on your nuance so I nuanced your nuance

How worried should we be that Instagram is harming the mental health of that most precious natural resource, teens? Thanks in part to the Wall Street Journal’s recent coverage of the “Facebook Files,” a treasure trove of internal documents leaked to the paper by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, a lot of people think the answer is ‘very!’

Included in the trove was internal research conducted by Facebook, which owns Instagram, showing that some teenage girls said they thought Instagram negatively impacted their mental health: “Facebook Knows Instagram Is Toxic for Teen Girls, Company Documents Show” went the WSJ headline. 

For certain people, this just confirmed what they already knew about the platform’s pernicious influence on young minds. For folks with a bit of a background in social science, though, the research was seen as underwhelming at best, in large part because it was based on self-reports. (Also, even setting that aside, most of the kids in the research said they didn’t think Instagram was harming their mental health.) 

As Stuart Ritchie, who wrote the best piece poking holes in the research I’ve seen for UnHerd, put it:

Asking people to introspect on the causes of their own mental health is hardly a reliable way of getting to the truth, given how much is going on in any one person’s life that might positively or negatively affect their wellbeing. Those who identify Instagram as the source of their sorrow could simply be mistaken — as could the vast majority of survey respondents, who said that Instagram either made them happier or had no effect on their mental health. So the headline splash of “Facebook Knows Instagram Is Toxic For Teen Girls” should, at the very least, have been: “Facebook Thinks Instagram Is Toxic For Some Teen Girls” — with a subheading: “On the Basis of Asking Those Teen Girls For Their Opinion”.

This research pretty clearly doesn’t tell us anything, or at least not anything concrete. But I’m less interested in that issue — just read Ritchie — than in the followup point made by many of the debunkers: We’ve been through this sort of thing before, and it’s little more than a moral panic. 

For example, after accurately describing the shaky state of the available research, Farhad Manjoo wrote in the New York Times:

And in jumping to the conclusion that Facebook’s Instagram platform and other social-media services will be the ruin of the next generation, we — the news media in particular and society generally — may be tripping into a trap that has gotten us again and again: A moral panic in which we draw broad, alarming conclusions about the hidden dangers of novel forms of media, new technologies or new ideas spreading among the youth.

Comic books, television, rock music, rap music, disco, video games, Ebonics and political correctness are among the subjects that have generated mass panic in the past. You’d think that this litany of media jumpiness would prevent new scares, but we remain as panicky as ever — note our culture’s current preoccupation with the supposed scourges of critical race theory and cancel culture.

There is something very alluring about this argument: This new worry we have seems similar to those worries we had in the past, and those worries turned out to be silly, so we are probably being silly again. It is designed to make you feel smart, like you’re one of the ones who gets it — someone who isn’t going to get played. Not this time.

I’m always going to side with those who stand up against moral panics, but I don’t think this comparison really holds. And I’d like to explain why I don’t buy it and hopefully lay out a way of thinking about these issues that can help people work through them.

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