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Zuckerberg challenged by experts on social media impact on youngsters

Academics and other influential figures have sent an open letter to Meta – formerly known as Facebook – CEO Mark Zuckerberg, urging him to consider the effects of social media on children and young people. 

The letter, led by Oxford University’s Oxford Internet Institute, says that Meta, which owns the likes of Facebook and WhatsApp, ‘falls short of basic standards’ in how it studies the mental health science of youths.

Zuckerberg must, it adds, ‘act now and establish new research practices’ to better investigate whether using these hugely popular apps has any significant effects on young people.

The global coalition is being spearheaded by Professor Andrew Przybylski, the institute’s director of research, and one thing, it says, is clear – Meta’s approach needs to change.  Meta’s call for better research, it adds, follows recent leaks showed the company had undertaken research into how Instagram in particular was affecting teenagers but had not published the work.

‘Act now and establish new research practices’

Professor Przybylski said: “In principle, we applaud that Meta tries to understand how its platforms may be impacting the mental health of young people. However, the work is not only methodologically questionable, it is also conducted in secret. That’s why such studies are misguided and, in their present state, doomed to fail.”

Child in the City recently reported how Instagram had paused work on its planned Instagram Kids app, so it could take time out to listen to the concerns of parents and experts. The idea was for Instagram Kids to be an app for so-called ‘tweens’ aged 10 to 12 who although they have a mobile phone cannot access Instagram without being dishonest about their real age.

The Facebook-owned app had developed a version which had no advertisements or ad tracking, and had age-appropriate content only. But Instagram said that the work was being put on hold while the company expanded its consultation with experts.

Now this coalition of largely university-based academics is calling for immediate changes in how Meta studies child and adolescent wellbeing. The letter sets out three clear actions for Meta’s CEO and executives to implement which, the experts say, will help scientists, policymakers, journalists, parents, and users to better understand how online platforms influence our mental health.

  • Commit to gold standard transparency on child and adolescent mental health research  – Independent and transparent reviews of all past, present, and future research on child and adolescent mental health is needed – including research conducted in the Global North,  South, and conflict areas.
  • Contribute to independent research on child and adolescent mental health around the globe – Data collected by Meta on how people use their platforms should be shared with large-scale cohort studies of young people and should be contributed to global studies of child and adolescent mental health, working with researchers worldwide, particularly in the Global South.
  • Establish an independent oversight trust for child and adolescent mental health on Meta platforms – A new oversight board is needed to scientifically vet the risks and benefits of social media to mental health and promote evidence-based solutions on a worldwide scale.

This new coalition aims to build a strong alliance of international experts, and welcomes voices from other academics and those working in industry, charities, NGOs, campaigning groups, and the voluntary sector to help drive change for a better understanding of the online world and its effects on users.

Professor Przybylski added: “Understanding and supporting youth mental health in the digital age is a bigger challenge than any one person, company or team can tackle.  We believe Meta’s platforms have the potential to play an important role in impacting billions of young people for the common good.  This global challenge requires a global solution.  Meta can do better and we’re willing to help.”

Author: Simon Weedy

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