News & Events

Leadership Likes: Mr King

The mathematician who hates data is a funny concept, but the reason he does so is not.

I was of course very interested to read the recent BBC article on the explosive data leak to the Wall Street Journal which claims Facebook acknowledges their platform has a negative impact on young people’s mental health. Later in the week, Sara Miller of the American Economic Liberties programme went so far as to suggest (hope?) that Facebook might now face disbanding at the order of Congress. Such a move would drive a stake through the heart of the Big Data dream, and see WhatsApp and Instagram divorced from their master harvester, presumably also subject to more rigorous regulation of their content.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-58753525

Facebook disputes the Wall Street Journal’s reporting saying:

“It is simply not accurate that this research demonstrates Instagram is ‘toxic’ for teen girls,” Head of Research Pratiti Raychoudhury blogged.

“The research actually demonstrated that many teens we heard from feel that using Instagram helps them when they are struggling with the kinds of hard moments and issues teenagers have always faced.

It would be very interesting to see the questions Facebook asked teens about Instagram in order to elicit the now leaked answers and data on the social media giant’s impact on teen health and well-being.

I haven’t dug any further than the BBC/WSJ reporting of the Senate hearing, and (hands up) I am writing in raised frustration without doing thorough fact checking.

However, as a self-declared opponent to “Big Data”, I resent the comment that “teens we heard from feel that using Instagram helps them when they are struggling with the kinds of hard moments”.

How are these hard moments classified, and crucially, HOW HAVE THEY BEEN BROUGHT ABOUT?!

Teens have forever judged their body image against their peers and it is long established that this is a possible source of anxiety/worry. Negative self-image is at the root of eating disorders and self-harm in many cases.

In fact, the one area Facebook concede that they do have a negative impact on teens, is body image.

And “when they are struggling with these hard moments” and they turn to social media (I’ll widen the net here, because Instagram aren’t the only platform), do they find comfort and support from well trained professionals with oodles of time to spare on the growing number of teens requiring “post-pandemic” (read 18-month online binge)?  Or do they, in fact, find ANOTHER teen who is going through something similar, or worse, and then share (in an unhealthy way) “coping” mechanisms or “solidarity”.

You must ask the right questions. Teenagers are impressive, but infinitely complicated creatures, whose age bears almost zero relation to the journey into maturity they have made. The very fact that companies bother asking young people their age, points to the fact that they are blind to the notion that their impact is often felt well before the teenage years.

Regardless of the big data they seek, and which they claim enables them to “predict” young people and offer them the best “user experience”, they refuse, time and again, to see through the data to the human adolescents on the other side.

It is either a weak conscience, or a greed so powerful it tramples on the very consumers they wish to harvest, year on year.

David King

Deputy Head (Pastoral)

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