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Influenced: A Global News series about social media’s impact on and offline

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While it has long been suspected — and anecdotally understood — that social media platforms don’t always have a positive influence on our mental health, the ill effects of social networks have recently come into sharper focus.

In September 2021, the Wall Street Journal published a deluge of internal Facebook research that put a spotlight on the company’s behind-the-scenes actions. The documents revealed the company, which recently changed its corporate name to Meta and owns other social networks including Instagram and WhatsApp, is well aware of its platforms’ negative influences on the mental health of young people, hate speech, and dangerous political activity like the buildup to the U.S. Capitol riot.

“The documents offer perhaps the clearest picture thus far of how broadly Facebook’s problems are known inside the company, up to the chief executive himself,” a quote from the Journal’s report reads.

Read more: Facebook whistleblower says platform amplifies online hate, extremism

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The investigation showed Facebook ignoring its own employees’ findings. The Journal points out that despite congressional hearings, numerous media exposés and the company’s own pledges, Facebook “hasn’t fixed” its flaws. The company has started to backpedal, trying to get ahead of political anger by rolling out new in-app measures with safety in mind, but will that be enough?

Former Facebook employee Frances Haugen testifies on Capitol Hill October 5, 2021 in Washington, DC. Photo by Drew Angerer/Pool/ABACAPRESS.COM

One of the more damning revelations from the Journal’s reporting, and later the testimony by Facebook whistleblower France Haugen, lies in the harm Instagram has contributed to teens’ mental health, particularly young girls navigating the dynamics and pitfalls of adolescence, body image and social acceptance.

“Canadians use social media to spend time with the people they care about, explore their interests, and express themselves. As always, we want our platforms to be a supportive and safe place for young people especially,” said Lisa Laventure, head of communications for Meta in Canada, in a statement to Global News.

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“For years, Meta has done extensive work in bullying, suicide and self-injury, and eating disorder prevention and we will continue to look for opportunities to consult with experts and build new features and resources that help people who are struggling with negative social comparison or body image issues.”

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a House Financial Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Oct. 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

The problems highlighted by the Journal and other media outlets are consistent with what Facebook critics have been lamenting for years — social media giants, like Facebook, seem to prioritize profits over the health and safety of billions of users.

Canadian teens are undoubtedly among those feeling the effect, and studies back that up.

A recent review of reports, studies and surveys has laid out a clear case for a growing epidemic of mental-health concerns among youth, pointing to social media as a contributing — often ignored — factor.

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“This is an issue we’ve never taken lightly,” wrote Meta executives Kevin Chan, Rachel Curran, and Joelle Pineau in an op-ed published in The Globe and Mail last October.

“While there will always be more work to do, it’s false to suggest that we ignore these issues. Our research efforts, which we subsequently released in full, show the exact opposite.”

“It is only by better understanding the risks that we are able to develop products, policies and partnerships to address areas of concern. The claim that Facebook is incentivized to maximize profit at all costs ignores the reality of this work, as well as the fact that both users and advertisers do not want to see hate on our platform. There is no incentive, whether moral or economic, for Facebook to build products that make people angry or depressed.”

On the heels of increasing scrutiny of social media juggernauts, a group of reporters at Global News has been digging into the many facets of influence these platforms have both online and off — particularly on young Canadians — whether they like it or not.

This series will address the dangerous reality of social media and what’s being done about it:

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