Meta Feels New Pressure to Address Harm to Teenagers

Image of a person holding a smart phone that has the Instagram logo on the front
June 24, 2024

Our NYU colleague Jonathan Haidt’s best-selling book, The Anxious Generation, has brought renewed attention to the harm that social media causes to the mental health of at least some teenagers. Several other recent developments on this front are worth pulling together to underscore the urgency of this issue — and the need for action, especially from the largest social media company, Meta:

“In the first 45 minutes after setting up an account, Instagram Reels showed my 13- year-old persona videos with performers miming sex acts, videos where they could pause to see the content creator nude, and videos from other teen girls comparing the size of their breasts or butt in lingerie. Reels showed my 23-year-old account similar content. I was not able to detect a meaningful difference in what the feed algorithm would show these two users. In one case, my 13-year-old account was even shown content with a ‘click through’ warning that it contained graphic, violent content.

“By contrast, these two personas were shown very different content on TikTok, both from each other and from what they were shown on IG Reels. Over the 45 minutes I ran the experiment, my 13-year-old persona was shown virtually no racy content. My 23-year-old self was shown some sexually suggestive content, but overall the ‘adult’ experience on TikTok appears to have much less explicit content than the ‘teen’ experience on Reels. The user experiences on TikTok are different enough to make me suspect TikTok is using a different feed algorithm or drawing from a different content pool for minors and adults.”

But given these various developments, Meta would be well advised to abandon its characteristic defensive crouch and instead confront mounting evidence that at least some vulnerable minors are suffering as a result of their copious time spent online.


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