The moral panic engulfing Instagram
By Farhad Manjoo
In testimony before a Senate subcommittee last week, Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee turned whistleblower, raised a number of important and complex policy questions about how society might better regulate the wayward social-media giant.
But she also raised a very basic question, one for which neither the hearing nor her leaked internal documents provided a clear answer.
The question is: Is social media a danger to teenagers? The answer is: We have no idea.
Nobody really does — not child-development experts, not technology companies, not teenagers and not, alas, hapless parents like myself. And in jumping to the conclusion that Facebook’s Instagram platform and other social-media services will be the ruin of the next generation, we — the news media in particular and society generally — may be tripping into a trap that has gotten us again and again: a moral panic in which we draw broad, alarming conclusions about the hidden dangers of novel forms of media, new technologies or new ideas spreading among the youth.
Comic books, television, rock music, rap music, disco, video games, Ebonics and political correctness are among the subjects that have generated mass panic in the past. You’d think that this litany of media jumpiness would prevent new scares, but we remain as panicky as ever — note our culture’s current preoccupation with the supposed scourges of critical race theory and cancel culture.
In the last couple years I have become especially wary of such panics, because the phenomenon is an obsession of two of my favorite media critics, journalists Sarah Marshall and Michael Hobbes, the creators of a brilliant podcast called “You’re Wrong About.” The show takes a revisionist look at media narratives that once sent the culture into hair-singed worry — things like the “satanic panic” of the 1980s (are witches running your child’s day care center?), the “sexting” scare of the late 2000s and the widely exaggerated fear, in the 1990s, that urban gangs posed a terrible threat to public safety.
Although each “You’re Wrong About” episode focuses on a particular panic, Marshall and Hobbes’ larger project has been to create a kind of cartography of media dread — to map how such narratives of fear take hold in media and hang on even when they are supported by little evidence. Their work suggests the central appeal of pumping up fright: Moral panics often redirect society’s attention away from large, difficult problems — what are we going to do about America’s gun culture? — to small, but wonderfully easy one-off solutions: Let’s just ban violent video games and call it a day, shall we?
As I watched Haugen’s testimony last week, I couldn’t help but spot patterns of moral panic. Many of the lawmakers’ questions and Haugen’s answers seemed to be animated less by data than by assumption. At times the hearing felt like a real-life version of that meme from “The Simpsons”: “Won’t somebody please think of the children?!”
Haugen pointed to Facebook research that suggests that Instagram can exacerbate teenagers’ anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts and body image issues. Among other suggestions, she proposed increasing the minimum age for any person using social media to 17 years old from 13 years old.
As psychologist Laurence Steinberg wrote in The Times, the research that Haugen cites is quite weak. Much of it is correlational, and the same leaked documents also show that many teenagers appear to think that in many ways, Instagram plays a more positive role in their lives than a negative one.
As a pundit, I find Haugen’s proposal to raise the minimum age for using social media to be a reasonable precaution. She also made a strong case for lawmakers and regulators to impose radical transparency on Facebook so that outside researchers can get a much better handle on social media’s role in society.
But as a parent of kids just a couple years shy of teenagerdom, my concerns are more immediate. Should I (at some point) let my children get smartphones and explore the wilds of Instagram, TikTok and whatever actually cool internet thing kids are using now that I’ve never heard of? If so, at what age?
At the moment, my best answers are: I don’t know and I don’t know.
There is a potential cost to permissiveness and to prohibition. It’s possible, as Haugen’s leaked research suggests, that social media could have disastrous impacts on my kids’ mental and social well-being; it’s also possible that it will have significant positive effects (in the survey that Haugen pointed to, many teen boys and girls said Instagram alleviated their loneliness, family stress and sadness, while many also said it had no impact either way).
There is also the question of how a lockout from social media may affect my kids’ well-being. Today, for better or worse, the world runs on social media; do I want my children to grow up without understanding its dynamics, its risks and its possibilities? Will a ban turn them into social outcasts? If I stop them from using the app where all of their friends hang out, am I acting like the stodgy dad who wouldn’t let his kids listen to Elvis?
Earlier this week, Hobbes announced that he would be leaving “You’re Wrong About” to work on other projects; the show will continue to run with Marshall hosting. I wish her great luck with it, but I also hope that the show’s ethos is widely copied — that the practice of examining how our culture falls into unnecessary hysteria becomes routine in newsrooms.
We live in troubling times. But we can’t begin to solve our real problems if we keep getting wrapped up in exaggerated ones.