If there's anyone who understands the powerful effect of social media on teens, it's Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen. Now she's discussing how social media algorithms suck kids in and how parents might accidentally be making things worse.
After managing algorithms at companies like Google, Pinterest, Yelp, and Facebook, Haugen became so alarmed with Facebook's business practices that she decided to disclose internal company documents to government officials in the U.S., UK, and Europe. She told a Senate committee last October, “I believe that Facebook’s products harm children."
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg shared a statement after that hearing, arguing that the company’s work has been mischaracterized.
“I’m particularly focused on the questions raised about our work with kids. I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on the kinds of experiences I want my kids and others to have online, and it’s very important to me that everything we build is safe and good for kids,” he said.
In a roundtable discussion on Monday hosted by Georgetown University, Haugen outlined how children and teens can fall into the trap of algorithms that lead them to unhealthy corners of social media — such as self-harm or eating disorder content — and how parents might accidentally make kids feel more alone in their struggles.
What parents don't know about social media
"What we have seen from Facebook's own research is that Facebook knows that the products it makes are very engaging. They're designed to be engaging," she said. "Unfortunately, in the case of children and young adults, that can lead to very high rates of what we call 'problematic use.'"
"If it's making you so sad, why don't you just not use it?"
Facebook's algorithms are not neutral, Haugen explained. Content that gets a reaction from people gets distributed more widely. That's how an innocent search for "healthy recipes" on Instagram might lead a teenager to eating disorder content instead.
'Dopamine loops': How algorithms lead to addiction
Haugen said Instagram's algorithms can lead to addiction in its young users by creating "little dopamine loops."
In the first ten minutes on Instagram, people will see content from their friends or pages they follow, she says. As they stay longer on the site, the algorithm will reach reach further to show them new and engaging content in an effort to keep them there.
"Once you get an hour or two in, Facebook's algorithms are the main thing that's choosing what you're focusing on," she said. "Now you're in the zone where you really are just putting yourselves in the algorithm's hands."
Although finding distraction in the form of social media can be a self-soothing technique, it can also lead to anxiety.
"That's where that feedback cycle gets so scary," Haugen said, "where people get trapped and they get pulled in."
Parents can accidentally add to the problem
Parents can't always understand what teens today are experiencing on social media, Haugen said.
"If you go to your parents and they never experienced what it's like to be 15 and have a social media addiction, a lot of those kids are really suffering alone," she said.
Parents mean well, but "might say something like, 'If it's making you so sad, why don't you just not use it?'" Haugen said.
That makes kids feel alone, she said. "Kids feel like it's their fault they can't say no, and that's ignoring the fact that these are little dopamine loops. There's reasons why it's so habit-forming."
What can help teens struggling with social media?
In addition to calling for more transparency from companies like Facebook and more serious efforts to keep children off their platforms, Haugen suggested human solutions to the problems technology creates for young people.
She sees an opportunity for young users to take their control back from social media by supporting or mentoring each other in what she envisions as "resiliency networks."
She proposed starting clubs in schools and colleges in which teenagers and college students can check in on each other.
Haugen said, "I'm humble enough and self-aware enough to know I will not be as effective talking to a 13-year-old as a 16-year-old will be, or a 19-year-old."