Facebook Algorithm’s Harm to Teens’ Body Image Underscores Need for Transparency, Researcher Says

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By Jamie Loo

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CHICAGO, October 6, 2021—Body image researcher Alissa Haedt-Matt says the leaked Facebook documents that show the company knew Instagram elicited negative body image feelings in teens reinforces prior research and Facebook needs to give more access to researchers.

“What sticks out to me in the Facebook data is how much this is also a problem for teen boys, a group often overlooked in research,” she says. “In their reports, Facebook’s researchers found that 40 percent of teen boys experience negative social comparison and 14 percent of boys reported that Instagram made them feel worse about themselves.”

Haedt-Matt, associate professor of psychology at Illinois Institute of Technology and director of the IIT Eating Behaviors Lab, says her research has found that viewing Instagram profiles leads to an increased desire to want to restrict one’s intake of food, whether participants were viewing the profile of someone who conformed to the thin-ideal or the profile of someone who did not conform to this ideal. The IIT Eating Behaviors Lab has also conducted research into male athletes and body image.

In testimony before the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, Frances Haugen called Facebook’s engagement-based ranking system, an algorithm used by social media companies to boost content based on likes, shares or comments, “dangerous.” Haedt-Matt agrees that it’s extremely harmful to teens and their body image.

“The engagement-based ranking may be taking teens who are dipping their toe into the experience of body dissatisfaction or eating disorders and essentially pushing them into the deep end of the pool by promoting more and more extreme content,” Haedt Matt says. “It’s very disturbing that searches for fitness, healthy living, or even weight loss would lead to them being inundated with extreme content that promotes the development of eating disorders.”

Haedt-Matt says that transparency is a key tenant of scientific research and that “without accessibility of Facebook’s data for independent investigation and accountability to the larger community, it is unlikely we will ever know the truth about what these data really mean.”

“I think that banning targeted advertisements towards kids, ensuring that Facebook and other social media companies are more transparent with how their algorithms are developed and used to boost engagement with extreme content, and eliminating the engagement-based ranking system would all help lessen the negative effects of social media,” she says.

Haedt-Matt researches body dissatisfaction, binge eating and related dysregulated eating behaviors, as well as real-time social and behavioral processes associated with eating disorders and their treatment through social media data analytics. The IIT Eating Behaviors Lab focuses on research related to eating behaviors, eating disorders, and body image in men, women, children, and minority groups.