Okay, I’ll admit, I’m pretty worked up about this.

First, a Wall Street Journal piece based on leaked internal Facebook info about suppressed research into bad effects Facebook and Instagram can have on teens’ mental health.

… consistent across all groups.” Among teens who reported suicidal thoughts, 13% of British users and 6% of American users traced the desire to kill themselves to Instagram, one presentation showed.

Even a very small percentage of attribution in suicidality should be serious and notable. This portion is not very small.

…ative and qualitative analysis. In five presentations over 18 months to this spring, the researchers conducted what they called a “teen mental health deep dive” and follow-up studies. They came to the conclusion that some of the problems were specific to Instagram, and not social media more broadly. That is especially true concerning so-called social comparison, which is when people assess their own value in relation to the attractiveness, wealth and success of others. “Social comparison is worse on Instagram,” states Facebook’s deep dive into teen girl body-image issues in 2020, noting that TikTok, a short-video app, is grounded in performance, while users on Snapchat, a rival photo and video-sharing app, are sheltered by jokey filters that “keep the focus on the face.” In contrast, Instagram focuses heavily on the body and lifestyle. The features that Instagram identifies as most harmful to teens appear to be at the platform’s core. The tendency to share only the best moments, a pressure to look perfect and an addictive product can send teens spiraling toward eating disorders, an unhealthy sense of their own bodies and depression, March 2020 internal research states. It warns that the Explore page, which serves users photos and videos curated by an algorithm, can send users deep into content that can be harmful. “Aspects of Instagram exacerbate each other to create a perfect storm,” the research states. The research has been reviewed …

These claims are explicitly laid out as being specific to Instagram’s design, not “teenage girls being teenage girls” or “social media is harmful”.

…sabled people just being happy. In March, the researchers said Instagram should reduce exposure to celebrity content about fashion, beauty and relationships, while increasing exposure to content from close friends, according to a slide deck they uploaded to Facebook’s internal message board. A current employee, in comments on the message board, questioned that idea, saying celebrities with perfect lives were key to the app. “Isn’t that what IG is mostly about?” he wrote. Getting a peek at “the (very photogenic) life of the top 0.1%? Isn’t that the reason why teens are on the platform?” A now-former executive questioned the idea of overhauling Instagram to avoid social comparison. “People use Instagram because it’s a competition,” the former executive said. “That’s the fun part.” To promote more positive use of…

Elsewhere in the article, it says Facebook does not make the data available to outside researchers that they would need to really dig into potentially negative effects. This means public regulation based on public data is not going to be thorough or effective. In the absence of regulation, it’s only Facebook’s leadership and employees that can act on any findings, public or internal. Because of this, the mindset that tech industry people have on these issues is crucially important and disproportionately influential.

So what is that mindset?

Enter Hacker News, where today the top comment thread about this article was this for hours:

[…] Why are young girls so awful to each other? I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suspect that is has to do with “hormones,” new emotions, and new social awareness, etc. But, it’s also the case that from a strictly evolutionary perspective, young girls are are the most fertile and therefore the most desirable. This will decline over time, and sharply as women enter their 30s, 40s, and 50s. Perhaps there’s an evolutionary reason why young girls work so hard to identity and sideline any competition? If this is the period of their life where they are the most desirable, there might be an evolutionary benefit to be the most cut-throat when it comes to vying for the best mating opportunities.

A few caveats:

  • Hopefully I don’t have to explain that evolutionary impulses are not the same as desirable or positive social values.
  • Nor are evolutionary impulses immutable, or always expressed in the same way. (for example, sports are often observed as a peaceful replacement for warring city states.)
  • Further, I’m definitely aware that evolutionary psychology can sound very reasonable while being perfectly rubbish and unscientific. There are plenty of people who say things like “because hunter-gathers experienced X,” that explains “dubious trend which I have anecdotally observed.” Even in the case where an evolutionary psychology explanation may happen to be correct, it remains difficult to prove or test.

This comment has a pretty responsible amount of hedging re: the general wishy-washiness of evopsych, so I won’t fault it there, but it’s still fundamentally trying to shift the issue to “how can we explain meanness (not even discussed in the WSJ piece) as the result of teenage girls’ biological nature (and set aside the explicit design decisions of tech products)”.

I know it’s fashionable to scoff at calls to “make the XYZ industry more diverse” as a way to fix problems in XYZ. “Hire more women guards.” But I truly believe that while no entity shaped like Facebook could develop social media responsibly, you can’t even have responsible criticism when the communities of peers of Facebook workers are a bunch of dudes who think it’s reasonable to cite “women in their 30s aren’t attractive” as a response to “Instagram is making teenage girls hate themselves”.