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A conversation on what social media means for young people

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Does Instagram hurt young people? And is the app's owner, Facebook, covering up evidence of the damage? Well, Congress is looking into those questions this week as part of a broader investigation into whether Facebook sacrifices public safety for profit. A Senate panel hears tomorrow from a Facebook whistleblower, and we need to note that the company is one of NPR's financial supporters.

In another part of the program, we talk with a Facebook executive, and we are joined now by two guests. Monica Anderson of the Pew Research Center studies young people and technology, and Nina Roehl is a reporter with YR Media who is currently getting her undergraduate degree at San Francisco State University.

Good to have you both here.

MONICA ANDERSON: Thanks for having me.

NINA ROEHL: Yeah, thank you.

SHAPIRO: Nina, will you begin by sharing your own experience with us? When you hear a Facebook whistleblower say that Instagram harms teens, how does that reflect what you have experienced and reported on yourself?

ROEHL: It's definitely not surprising in - at all. I'm 21, so I've grown up with social media, basically. I joined social media when I was 12 or 13 years old. So a few years ago, I did a piece about posting and deleting, and the common thing that I hear a lot from my peers is just - a lot of it is about insecurity and about body image issues. So a lot of the talks that I've had with other young people, a lot of them were young girls, especially. And that, you know, a lot of these - they see a lot of these images on social media, particularly, like, Instagram or these image-based apps, and a lot of it is very edited. A lot of it is very filtered. But it creates these unrealistic beauty standards and these unattainable beauty standards that even if we know that in the back of our head, it's still kind of nagging at us that, oh, that is what I should look like because I see this person who gets a bunch of likes and a bunch of comments.

And so people are seeking that validation. And then once they make that post - right? - because they were trying to get that validation, if they don't get that same response back, those likes, those comments, then they're like, oh, well, then I'm not good enough, or why am I not getting that same attention? So then they go back, and then they delete. And then it comes with this internal conversation.

SHAPIRO: So Nina is giving us this real-world experience of what, Monica, you research every day. What does your research show about the experience that Nina is describing?

ANDERSON: Yeah. So one of the studies that we did in 2018 surveyed teenagers about their experiences with social media, including both the bad side and the good side. And one of the things that really kind of resonated in those findings was just some of those negative experiences that teenagers said that they experienced. So at the time, about 50% of teens said that they felt overwhelmed with the amount of drama that they see on these platforms. And they also talked about these feelings of having to present themselves in a certain way. So about 40% of teens said that they felt pressure to only post things that would get a lot of likes or a lot of comments, and about a similar share set the same thing for posting things that would make them appear good to others.

SHAPIRO: So it's a combination. It's not only the body image issues that Nina is talking about. It's also the general anxiety of having to be perfect and get the affirmation. The testimony from the Facebook whistleblower says that Instagram is uniquely bad among the other social media platforms. Is that the experience that both of you have had? Is that what your research and experience have shown?

ANDERSON: Yeah. We've definitely seen an explosion in the number of teenagers that are using Instagram. So in our survey in 2018, about 70% of teens said that they had used that social media site. And that was up about 20 percentage points from the last time we asked that question. So Instagram is used by a majority of teens, and many reported it was one of the sites that they use most often, as well.

SHAPIRO: Nina?

ROEHL: Yeah. I definitely do see among my peers and with myself that even though it is still this popular app, I find that a lot of people have some of the most problems with it in terms of, like, what we've been talking about right now. In terms of the anxieties and the different pressures that come with social media, I - you know, in my own experience, a lot of those pressures are specific to Instagram in particular compared to, like, Twitter, which is more of, like, a forum-based platform or even TikTok or whatever.

SHAPIRO: Less image-centered, yeah.

ROEHL: Exactly.

SHAPIRO: You both clearly believe that the social media companies are not doing a good enough job at protecting users from harmful content, negative experiences. And they have said we'll do better so many times. I guess the question at this point is, do you think they can do better? Or does some outside regulator need to make them do better?

ANDERSON: Well, for me, I can speak in terms of what the general public's kind of views on this are. And when we've asked about their attitudes about major tech companies, we see that a majority of Americans in this sense - we've surveyed adults about this - think that online harassment is a major problem. A majority think that social media companies have a responsibility to remove offensive content. But at the same time, most people don't think that social media companies are equipped to do so. So while they even think that, yes, they should be playing a role in this, there is this concern that are they even capable to actually execute it? There has been an uptick in people supporting more regulation. So in that sense, there seems to be more people that are interested in government involvement and being involved with major tech companies, as well as kind of looking at the social media side of things as well.

SHAPIRO: Nina, do you think Facebook and Instagram can clean their own houses? Or do you think somebody else needs to do it for them?

ROEHL: Yeah. I've thought about this a lot, and I'm kind of, you know, in the middle because I do think that there's a very important element of, like, free speech - right? - and being able to share your opinions and whatever. But I think that the monitoring that a lot of social media networks have in place right now needs a lot of work. This is not something that's new, right? The cyberbullying and the harassment and these negative experience that have been happening on social media - whether it's Instagram, Facebook, whatever - this is not just something that's recent, right? Like, cyberbullying and all of this has been an issue since the beginning of these social media apps - you know what I mean? - and bullying in general. And so that's kind of where I'm a little unsure of, like, I would love to say yes, that they can clean it up themselves. But my question then is, why haven't they already?

SHAPIRO: Monica Anderson is associate director of research for the Pew Research Center, and Nina Roehl is a reporter with YR Media. She's in her last year at San Francisco State University.

Thank you both for speaking with us.

ROEHL: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me.

ANDERSON: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.