A former Facebook employee has revealed that the US tech giant targets teenage girls with eating disorder content in an effort to keep them on the site longer.
Frances Haugen began working at the Silicon Valley company on its civic misinformation team in 2019, only to quit after becoming "increasingly alarmed" by its practice of prioritizing profit over public safety. She anonymously leaked thousands of company documents substantiating her concerns to the Wall Street Journal in September, before officially unveiling her identity on 3 October.
Speaking to 60 Minutes on CBS, Haugen shared a number of disturbing revelations about Facebook’s tactics to maximizing user engagement—including propagating eating disorder material to female minors on its photosharing app, Instagram.
“What’s super tragic, is Facebook’s own research says, as these young women begin to consume this eating disorder content, they get more and more depressed, and it actually makes them use the app more,” the 37-year-old revealed.
A Facebook internal presentation, which was detailed in the leaked documents, acknowledged the negative impact of Instagram on teenage adolescents’ mental health, particularly in relation to their self-image.
“We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,” it noted.
Facebook also accepted how Instagram’s design can increase the risk of eating disorders in March 2020, noting, “The tendency to share only the best moments, a pressure to look perfect and an addictive product can send teens spiraling toward eating disorders, an unhealthy sense of their own bodies and depression."
Haugen, who previously worked at Google and Pinterest, accused Facebook of continuing to perpetuate these harmful messages to young people, despite understanding their devastating effects.
“They [teenagers] end up in this feedback cycle where they hate their bodies more and more,” she said. “Facebook’s own research says, it is not just that Instagram is dangerous for teenagers, that it harms teenagers—it is that it is distinctly worse than other forms of social media.”
Haugen made a number of other bombshell claims in the interview about Facebook’s secret practices, accusing the company of endangering people offline by pushing harmful content online.
"The version of Facebook that exists today is tearing our societies apart and causing ethnic violence around the world," she said.
“When we live in an information environment that is full of angry, hateful, polarizing content, it erodes our civic trust, it erodes our faith in each other, it erodes our ability to want to care for each other.”
Haugen explained that Facebook’s algorithm is “optimizing for content that gets engagement or a reaction.” However, having discovered that it is “easier to inspire people to anger” than to feel other emotions, it has prioritized showing its users more divisive—and sometimes hateful—material.
"Facebook has realized that if they change the algorithm to be safer, people will spend less time on the site, they’ll click on less ads, they’ll make less money,” the data scientist added.
Haugen is expected to testify before the US Congress on Tuesday, to bring awareness to the dangers Facebook's platforms pose to young people.
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Hailing from the lovely city of Dublin, Emma mainly covers the Royal Family and the entertainment world, as well as the occasional health and wellness feature. Always up for a good conversation, she has a passion for interviewing everyone from A-list celebrities to the local GP - or just about anyone who will chat to her, really.
Emma holds an MA in International Journalism from City, University of London, and a BA in English Literature from Trinity College Dublin.
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