Social Media And Our Teens: A Conversation With Frances Haugen

What We Can Learn From The Facebook Whistleblower About Protecting Our Kids On Social Media

December 14, 2021 Updated December 21, 2021

The Facebook whistleblower has words for how many social media companies are manipulating and harming our tweens and teens

Many parents of tweens and teens have long suspected the negative impacts of social media apps on their kids, especially their daughters. From bullying to mental health to body image, it was no surprise when internal documents revealed that social media companies knew of these effects on children, too.

But the specific ways in which social media giants are both targeting our kids and refusing to do much about the negative effects of their algorithms were truly shocking.

In this special edition of Live.Work.Thrive, we sit down with Frances Haugen, known as the Facebook Whistleblower, and discuss her findings and her advice for parents processing this newly released information.

“Facebook knows that when it comes to addictive behavior, teenagers are not as good at self-regulation as adults are,” Haugen says. “And the highest rate of addiction to these platforms is when kids are 14 years old. These things are like cigarettes: teenage brains are still developing, and kids say: I know these platforms make me feel bad, and I can’t stop, but if I leave I’ll be ostracized.”

Haugen, a data scientist, holds a degree in electrical and computer engineering from Olin College and a MBA from Harvard University. She is a specialist in algorithmic product management, having worked on ranking algorithms at Google, Pinterest, Yelp, and Facebook. She was recruited to Facebook to be the lead product manager on the civic misinformation team, which dealt with issues related to democracy and misinformation, and later also worked on counterespionage.

During her time at Facebook, Haugen became increasingly alarmed by the choices the company made that she felt prioritized their own profits over public safety and put people’s lives at risk. Before Haugen left the social network, she uncovered thousands of pages of internal documents and shared then with lawmakers and The Wall Street Journal, which published a report this October. Haugen was then asked to testify before Congress to provide guidance on how to fix the problems the platform created.

In one of the few one-on-one interviews since her testimony, Haugen sat down with Scary Mommy’s Micaela Birmingham, host of Live.Work.Thrive, to discuss what her findings mean for parents. Watch as Haugen explains how social media algorithms can systematically lead children toward potentially harmful content.

“The most extreme content is… the most likely to provoke a reaction from people,” she explains. “What Facebook’s own documents show is that people can come in there and follow a pretty innocuous interest like healthy eating. And just by clicking on the content that Facebook provides, they’ll get shown more and more extreme content and get led to things like anorexia and self-harm content.”

Self-soothing scrolling can lead kids further and further down these rabbit holes of extreme content, which can lead to self-harm, eating disorders, and even suicidal thoughts and suicide.

Instagram, the documents show, can be even more harmful than other social media platforms.

“TikTok is about doing fun things with your friends — performance. Snapchat is about augmented reality — doing fun things with your face, filters. Reddit is at least vaguely about ideas,” Haugen says. “But Instagram is about comparing lifestyles and bodies. And that’s something that can really harm impressionable teenagers.”

While Instagram isn’t necessarily “evil”– the company is not going out of its way to harm our kids — the artificial intelligence it’s created does the work for them.

“That’s what gets dangerous,” she says. “The AI is always scanning for your vulnerabilities and looking for what rabbit hole it can pull you down.”

And Meta — the new name for the entity that owns Facebook and Instagram — isn’t doing enough to correct the system that they’ve set up. Not only are they not spending enough money to improve the AI, but they’re also not putting an effort into protecting kids that shouldn’t be there.

“Facebook won’t disclose what it’s doing to keep under-thirteens off the platform,” she says, “I strongly believe that if they want to have way more kids under the age of 13 off the platform, they could do it in a heartbeat.”

In the second half of the segment, Haugen gives advice to parents who are wondering how to keep their kids safe, whether or not they’re on social media platforms yet.

  • Use an app that sets time allowances.
  • Be involved in your kids digital life like you are in their physical life.
  • Scroll with them and see what they’re following.
  • Show them your phone and talk about how you manage your own devices.
  • Show older kids the documentary The Social Dilemma, which is very accessible.

While Haugen believes that there are positive aspects to social media — as long as we can remain aware, limit our exposure, and use technology to keep it healthier. But right now, it’s largely up to parents to keep their kids protected.

“Anything that you don’t pay for: you’re the product,” she says, “You’re being sold to advertisers.”

To learn a whole lot more about social media and how it can harm your kids, watch the full interview.

Want to learn more about social media safety for your kids? We have resources that can help.