Skip to main content

Facebook’s whistleblower report confirms what researchers have known for years

Facebook’s whistleblower report confirms what researchers have known for years


Efforts to minimize the findings aren’t good for trust

Share this story

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

For weeks, Facebook has stared down mounting anxiety over a leaked internal study about the harmful effects of Instagram on teenage girls — and Tuesday night, Mark Zuckerberg finally responded to the scandal personally. In an open letter to Facebook staff, Zuckerberg scoffed at concerns raised by whistleblower Frances Haugen, doubling down on earlier Facebook claims that the report has been misinterpreted.

“If we’re going to have an informed conversation about the effects of social media on young people, it’s important to start with a full picture,” Zuckerberg wrote. “We’re committed to doing more research ourselves and making more research publicly available.”

But for researchers who study social media, the internal study that sparked the controversy was mostly confirmation of what they already knew — that Instagram makes teen girls feel worse about their bodies, and that they blame the platform for anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts.

Megan Moreno, principal investigator of the Social Media and Adolescent Health Research Team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says Haugen’s interpretation of the internal research squares perfectly with other work done on social media, especially Instagram. 

“I didn’t feel like it was tremendously surprising”

“For a certain population of youth, exposure to this content can be associated with diminished body image, or body image concerns,” Moreno says. “I didn’t feel like it was tremendously surprising.”

In fact, social media researchers have spent around ten years gathering evidence on how teen body image is affected by social media. Studies regularly find that teen and preteen girls who use Facebook, for example, are less satisfied with their bodies and do more self-objectification. One 2014 analysis of around 100 middle and high school girls showed that those who spent more time with Facebook photos had more weight dissatisfaction and more of a drive to be thin. Another study found that girls who spent more time online and on social media were more likely to diet. More recent studies on Instagram show similar findings: female college students were less satisfied with their bodies after seeing Instagram images of thin body types. A 2016 study of that same demographic showed that seeing images of peers and celebrities from Instagram led to more body dissatisfaction. 

Facebook has defended itself by pointing out that Instagram makes other teens feel better about themselves — but that’s also been duplicated by other studies, and not all the researchers find it reassuring. Teens who are confident in themselves already might not be negatively affected by Instagram, Moreno says, or it may help their self confidence — but kids who have lower self esteem are still vulnerable to the negative effects. 

“The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer”

“The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer,” Moreno told The Verge. “If you’re acknowledging that the people you harmed were already at risk, that suggests you’re uniquely disabling people that are vulnerable, I’m not sure that argument suggests that you’re out for people’s best interests.” 

The findings fit into a larger body of work on other forms of media, like reality television and magazines. Teen and adolescent girls who interact with that content also tend to say they’re more dissatisfied with their bodies. They’re also more likely to spend more time comparing themselves to others, and that type of social comparison is linked to anxiety and fears around the way they’re judged by others. 

Social media, though, is unique in that users are seeing people they know. “There’s this sense that you’re comparing yourself to people that you’re connected to, in some way,” Moreno says. 

The Facebook data’s consistency with past research also makes it harder to explain away the findings, and cast doubt on the annotations Facebook made when it released the underlying report. The research appears from the published slides to be strong and carefully done, Moreno says. “The design is excellent,” she says. “Their study was designed in the way that I’ve seen many others designed, which again is I think a measure of its quality.”

Facebook also argued that the data wasn’t representative of all Instagram users, that there were also findings about positive benefits from Instagram, and that the number of people surveyed in some cases was small. But while pointing out limitations is an important part of analyzing research data, the limitations here are similar to what might be seen in other studies, Moreno says. 

“Presumably, they got the data they asked for, they got exactly what they were looking for,” Moreno told The Verge, “but they didn’t like what it told them.”



Today’s Storystream

Feed refreshed 39 minutes ago The tablet didn’t call that play by itself

Emma Roth39 minutes ago
Missing classic Mario?

One fan, who goes by the name Metroid Mike 64 on Twitter, just built a full-on 2D Mario game inside Super Mario Maker 2 complete with 40 levels and eight worlds.

Looking at the gameplay shared on Twitter is enough to make me want to break out my SNES, or at least buy Super Mario Maker 2 so I can play this epic retro revamp.

External Link
Russell Brandom43 minutes ago
The US might still force TikTok into a data security deal with Oracle.

The New York Times says the White House is still working on TikTok’s Trump-era data security deal, which has been in a weird limbo for nearly two years now. The terms are basically the same: Oracle plays babysitter but the app doesn’t get banned. Maybe it will happen now, though?

Asian America learns how to hit back

The desperate, confused, righteous campaign to stop Asian hate

Esther Wang12:00 PM UTC
External Link
Russell Brandom4:29 PM UTC
Edward Snowden has been granted Russian citizenship.

The NSA whistleblower has been living in Russia for the 9 years — first as a refugee, then on a series of temporary residency permits. He applied for Russian citizenship in November 2020, but has said he won’t renounce his status as a U.S. citizen.

External Link
Emma Roth4:13 PM UTC
Netflix’s gaming bet gets even bigger.

Even though fewer than one percent of Netflix subscribers have tried its mobile games, Netflix just opened up another studio in Finland after acquiring the Helsinki-based Next Games earlier this year.

The former vice president of Zynga Games, Marko Lastikka, will serve as the studio director. His track record includes working on SimCity BuildIt for EA and FarmVille 3.

External Link
Andrew J. Hawkins3:37 PM UTC
Vietnam’s EV aspirant is giving big Potemkin village vibes

Idle equipment, absent workers, deserted villages, an empty swimming pool. VinFast is Vietnam’s answer to Tesla, with the goal of making 1 million EVs in the next 5-6 years to sell to customers US, Canada and Europe. With these lofty goals, the company invited a bunch of social media influencers, as well as some auto journalists, on a “a four-day, multicity extravaganza” that seemed more weird than convincing, according to Bloomberg.

James Vincent3:17 PM UTC
Today, 39 years ago, the world didn’t end.

And it’s thanks to one man: Stanislav Petrov, a USSR military officer who, on September 26th, 1983, took the decision not to launch a retaliatory nuclear attack against the US. Petrov correctly guessed that satellite readings showing inbound nukes were faulty, and so likely saved the world from nuclear war. As journalist Tom Chivers put it on Twitter, “Happy Stanislav Petrov Day to those who celebrate!” Read more about Petrov’s life here.

Soviet Colonel who prevented 1983 nuclear response
Photo by Scott Peterson/Getty Images
The Verge
James Vincent3:03 PM UTC
Deepfakes were made for Disney.

You might have seen the news this weekend that the voice of James Earl Jones is being cloned using AI so his performance as Darth Vader in Star Wars can live on forever.

Reading the story, it struck me how perfect deepfakes are for Disney — a company that profits from original characters, fans' nostalgia, and an uncanny ability to twist copyright law to its liking. And now, with deepfakes, Disney’s most iconic performances will live on forever, ensuring the magic never dies.

External Link
Elizabeth Lopatto2:41 PM UTC
Hurricane Fiona ratcheted up tensions about crypto bros in Puerto Rico.

“An official emergency has been declared, which means in the tax program, your physical presence time is suspended,” a crypto investor posted on TikTok. “So I am headed out of the island.” Perhaps predictably, locals are furious.

The Verge
Richard Lawler2:09 PM UTC
Teen hacking suspect linked to GTA 6 leak and Uber security breach charged in London.

City of London police tweeted Saturday that the teenager arrested on suspicion of hacking has been charged with “two counts of breach of bail conditions and two counts of computer misuse.”

They haven’t confirmed any connection with the GTA 6 leak or Uber hack, but the details line up with those incidents, as well as a suspect arrested this spring for the Lapsus$ breaches.

The Verge
Richard Lawler1:00 PM UTC
Green light.

Good morning to everyone, except for the intern or whoever prevented us from seeing how Microsoft’s Surface held up to yet another violent NFL incident.

Today’s big event is the crash of a NASA spaceship this evening — on purpose. Mary Beth Griggs can explain.

David Pierce12:54 PM UTC
Thousands and thousands of reasons people love Android.

“Android fans, what are the primary reasons why you will never ever switch to an iPhone?” That question led to almost 30,000 comments so far, and was for a while the most popular thing on Reddit. It’s a totally fascinating peek into the platform wars, and I’ve spent way too much time reading through it. I also laughed hard at “I can turn my text bubbles to any color I like.”