The Clear and Present Danger of Social Media Out of Control

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
October 6, 2021

Facebook and Instagram Are Dangerous, Especially to Teenage Girls, and the Company Knows It. Now, We All Know.


Sometimes the divide in worldview issues clearly breakdown along ideological lines and we can easily see what divides Democrats from Republicans. Other times, however, even in our hyper-partisan age, a remarkable unity between the polar ends of the political spectrum becomes visible—and when it does, we had better pay attention.

In a crucial subcommittee hearing in the United States Senate, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) came together, agreeing with urgency that the social media empire was out of control. They both placed Facebook at the very head of their concerns. Indeed, Senator Blumenthal said of Facebook, “It has hidden its own research on addiction and the toxic effects of its products.” Then, at the same hearing, Senator Blackburn indicted Facebook for its breach of trust: “We do not trust you with influencing our children.”

These two senators, one very liberal and the other very conservative, almost never agree on any political issue. On this issue, however, they—along with so many of their colleagues from both parties—concluded that Facebook and other social media platforms exert a toxic influence on the American public. Not only that, but the senators also charged these social media companies with creating policies to accentuate those harmful effects.

A recent series of reports from the Wall Street Journal [WSJ] detailed a massive leak from Facebook. A whistleblower provided the WSJ insider information from data collected while this individual was employed at Facebook. A whistleblower, in today’s parlance, means someone who calls attention to something simultaneously hidden and harmful that needs resolution.

In this case, the whistleblower is Francis Haugen, who identified herself in a “60 Minutes” interview on CBS. The Washington Post, reporting on the interview, wrote, “Haugen, the previously anonymous former Facebook employee who filed complaints against the company last month, makes as good a case as any that now is the time to hold social media accountable.” Haugen declared, “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. The vision of Facebook that exists today is tearing our societies apart and causing ethnic violence around the world.”

The information Haugen provided to the original string of articles from the WSJ, which began dropping in mid-September, put Facebook on the line and revealed enormously problematic antics enacted by the company. In a September 14 story from the WSJ, the headline read, “Facebook Documents Reveal Secret Elite Exempt from its Rules,” which referred to Facebook’s “XCheck” program. The XCheck program meant that certain people, including Hollywood celebrities and certain American politicians, enjoyed exemptions from the rules that govern acceptable and unacceptable behavior on Facebook. The social media company has previously said that the rules of the company apply to everyone, equally. Now, however, we know that was a lie.

Interestingly, a recent headline from The Atlantic read, “The Largest Autocracy on Earth.” The article explained that Facebook is acting like a hostile foreign power, and now it’s time we treated it that way.

The Senate subcommittee hearing is one indication that some Americans are waking up to the fact that it’s time to confront a nearly unchecked, authoritarian power. Yet, while there is agreement that something must be done, there is hardly a consensus—or even an idea—on what that something is.

But the story doesn’t end with an elite class of users who are exempt from the company’s rules. In another story dropped by the WSJ, the headline read, “Facebook Knows Instagram is Toxic for Teen Girls, its Research Shows.” In an article that appeared the next day, the headline declared, “Facebook Tried to Make Platform Healthier. It Got Angrier Instead.” The next day, came this: “Facebook Staff Flags Traffickers, Cartels. Company Response is Weak.”

Put the pieces together and we recognize that Facebook presents a constellation of moral issues that unarguably fall under the purview of governmental authority.

Social media, moreover, exacts an enormous social toll on society, especially children, teenagers, and, as it turns out, young women. Facebook knew the impact of its platforms—indeed, it collected data on how something like Instagram influenced teenage girls. The WSJ reported, “32% of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.” Another part of the data concluded, “Comparisons on Instagram can change how young women view and describe themselves.” The WSJ summarized the findings and reported, “For the past three years, Facebook has been conducting studies into how its photo sharing app effects its millions of young users repeatedly. The company’s researchers found that Instagram is harmful for a sizable percentage of them, most notably teenage girls.” Indeed, the Facebook data that was leaked stated, “We make body image issues worse for one in three teenage girls.”

Just consider that—one in three.

The data goes on, detailing, “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression. This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.” Facebook, therefore, at least acknowledges at an internal level that its platforms presented enormous social problems—the problems have become dangerous and noxious for so many young people.

The story, however, becomes more complex when we consider the business model. As the WSJ reported, “Expanding its base of young users is vital to the company’s more than $100 billion in annual revenue.” The company, moreover, “is currently valued at more than $1 trillion. When it comes to Instagram, more than 40% of its users are 22-years old and younger—22 million teenagers, moreover, log on to Instagram every day.

Hence why Instagram has become a place of enormous harm to the teenage population. As the WSJ summarized, “The features that Instagram identifies as most harmful to teens appear to be at the platform’s core. The tendency to share only the best moments, a pressure to look perfect, and an addictive product can send teens spiraling towards eating disorders, an unhealthy sense of their own bodies, and depression.” Again, this information was not an external survey, but an internal review conducted by Facebook itself. Their report concluded that “aspects of Instagram exacerbate each other to create a perfect storm.”

As we might imagine, part of the harm done by Facebook and its platforms included sexual exploitation. The WSJ reported, “Facebook’s researchers identified the oversexualization of girls as something that weighs in the mental health of the app’s users.” And to be clear, teenage boys are also not immune to the dangerous realities of Facebook: “In the deep dive Facebook’s researchers conducted into mental health in 2019, they found that 14% of boys in the United States said Instagram made them feel worse about themselves. In their report on body image in 2020, Facebook’s researchers found that 40% of teen boys experienced negative social comparison.”

Adolescence includes a time of vulnerability and anxiety. Endless comparisons abound about external image. It turns out that Facebook’s platforms exploit those anxieties and magnify them to unparalleled proportions.

Facebook, clearly without the company’s intention, has also become a platform for the spread of violent crime. One report concluded that drug cartels conducted their business on Facebook and even ordered murders. Indeed, the WSJ cited one team of investigators who, “Identified key individuals, tracked payments they made to hitmen, and discovered how they were recruiting poor teenagers to attend hitman training camps. Facebook messages showed recruiters warning young, would-be hires about being seriously beaten or killed by the cartel if they tried to leave the training camp.”

Given this avalanche of data, The Washington Post ran an editorial declaring that it was time to stand up to Facebook. Easier said than done. Consider the scale of Facebook and all of its platforms—again, this is a company valued at over $1 trillion. Additionally, Facebook and other social media companies have integrated with nearly every sphere of our communities. Their platforms connect human beings around the world. Consider, for example, what happened when Facebook recently suffered an interruption of service. Billions upon billions of dollars of commerce simply evaporated. Wealth disappeared. Meetings of economic and political significance ceased.

Disconnecting as a society is no easy challenge. In fact, it’s probably not a possibility because even if Facebook ended tomorrow, something else would quickly fill the void.

And while Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg promises to fix its problems, these documents and reports all indicate that the problem was far worse than Facebook let on, and that they are doing nothing to mitigate its toxic effects on billions of people around the world.

As Christians, we understand that the issues far surpass anything covered by the WSJ or other news outlets. We understand human dignity, which means that all men and women are not objects or abstractions—we are not a collection of carefully-picked pictures to curate a fantasy experience that embellishes our image.

The rise of social media has engendered the alienation of true humanity in the guise of this technological revolution. Normal human interaction and discourse has dissipated—and in its place, has come a frightening social media menace.

Face-to-face human interaction continues to decline, which leads to an inability to treat others with dignity and respect. Insults and character defamation are much easier to instigate from the safety of your bedroom with nothing but a laptop or smartphone. In fact, as the WSJ reported, Facebook’s platforms have become an “angrier place.”

Jacques Ellul was a French theologian in the 20th century and a prophet when it came to technology. He reminded Christians that we can never talk about “mere” technology because technology is never “mere.” In our age, technology becomes a god unto itself, a rival deity that threatens to contort human nature according to its own idolatrous determinations.

Ellul, moreover, warned Christians that we can never speak of technology as if it was something separate from theology. Technology changes the user; and it exerts a collective influence on entire societies and cultures.

In our day, technology has alienated us, certainly from each other. We sense that and can see how our reliance on technology has harmed our relationships with those around us. But it also has alienated us from God, feeding sinful impulses in us that turn us away from the dignity and identity we have as image bearers.

This means that Christians must think seriously about technology and understand that technology is a theological issue. A failure to confront the rival religion of technology is just another form of unfaithfulness.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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