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Meta’s leaked internal research on child and teen mental health isn’t the smoking gun we think it is, according to a top scientist

December 12, 2021

Leaked Meta research on teen mental health isn’t the smoking gun we think it is, Andrew Przybylski said.

The scientist told Insider it could not be held up as “damning proof” of the ill effects of Instagram.He’s among more than 300 scientists who have called on Mark Zuckerberg to open up Meta’s mental health research.

When Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen leaked internal Instagram research about the effect of the platform on teen mental health, lawmakers seized on what appeared to be a damning statistic: Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.

But Professor Andrew Przybylski, director of research at the Oxford Internet Institute, believes the research isn’t the smoking gun politicians believe it to be.

In an interview with Insider, Przybylski, an experimental psychologist who specialises in social media, said the leaked research amounted to little more than extremely preliminary work, and was a long way from the definitive proof that Instagram is bad for teenage girls. “If you were responsible and you ran a giant social media platform, this is like scoping research. This is the beginning of research,” he said.

“A lot of this work wouldn’t pass muster as a bachelor’s thesis,” he said. To have the research held up as “damning proof” of the ill effects of Instagram is “madness-making if you’re a responsible scientist,” he added.

Przybylski said Meta’s research was based entirely on self-reporting by Instagram users, meaning there wasn’t enough to draw conclusions about the actual effects of social media on mental health.

He drew a parallel with smoking. “You don’t use people’s opinions about whether or not smoking is good for them to draw some health inference,” he said.

However, Przybylski said he’s not ruling out the possibility that Instagram and other social media platforms have an adverse effect on the mental wellbeing of teens and children.

“This is about inviting Facebook to lead the way, to be a partner in a maturing science,” he said. “And that doesn’t mean locking everything away in proprietary computing environments.”

Przybylski is a co-author of an open letter toMark Zuckerberg that calls on the Meta CEO to open his company’s doors to scientists to allow them to scrutinize its mental health research. The letter has more than 300 signatories.

The open letter to Zuckerberg voiced the concern that Meta’s in-house research might be dangerously inadequate to deal with issues as serious as child and teen mental health. “We do not believe that the methodologies seen so far meet the high scientific standards required to responsibly investigate the mental health of children and adolescents,” the letter says.

This week Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri appeared before Congress to testify about child safety on the platform.

When asked at a Senate hearing Wednesday about opening up Meta’s data to scientists, Mosseri said researchers should have “regular access to meaningful data about social-media usage across the entire industry” but stopped short of promising full transparency, citing privacy concerns, The Wall Street Journal reported.

In response to the open letter, a Meta spokesperson said: “This is an industry-wide challenge. A survey from just last month suggested that more US teens are using 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.”

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