Are these technologies – embraced by billions – killing people and eroding democracy? Or is this just another moral panic?
According to Meta’s PR team and a handful of contrarian academics and journalists, there is evidence that social media does not cause harm and the overall picture is unclear. They cite apparently conflicting studies, imperfect access to data and the difficulty of establishing causality to support this position.
Teens struggle with self-esteem, and it doesn’t seem far-fetched to suggest that browsing Instagram could make that worse. Similarly, it’s hard to imagine so many people refusing to get vaccinated, becoming hyper partisan or succumbing to conspiracy theories in the days before social media. Social media can have catastrophic effects, even if the average user only experiences minimal consequences. The tendency to ignore harm on the margins isn’t unique to mental health or even the consequences of social media.
The lack of harm to many is not inconsistent with severe harm caused to a few. With most of the world now using some form of social media, it’s important to listen to the voices of concerned parents and struggling teenagers when they point to Instagram as a source of distress. Meta could come forward with irrefutable and transparent evidence that their products are harmless, even to the vulnerable, if it exists. However, it’s data about average effects is telling.