Two University of Bath School of Management experts have joined a coalition of leading academics from across the world to call on Meta/Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to support researchers who want to better understand how Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp impact children’s well-being.
In an open letter to Zuckerberg drafted by 19 academics, Dr Brit Davidson and Dr David Ellis said academics believed the methods used by Meta did not meet the high scientific standards required to responsibly assess the mental health impact of the various social media platforms on children.
“Unfortunately, research is happening behind closed doors and we have only a fragmented picture of the studies Meta is conducting. We are reliant on media leaks – these are serious research topics and this work should not be developed without independent oversight,” Davidson, an expert in digital health and behaviour, said.
“Sound science must come before firm conclusions are drawn or new tools are launched. Mark Zuckerberg and Meta have an ethical and moral obligation to align their internal research on children and adolescents with established standards for evidence in mental health science,” said Ellis, a behavioural scientist who studies how data and ubiquitous technologies such as social media are changing the way academics conduct research and how people live in the digital age.
In the letter to the Facebook founder, the academics observed that three billion people use Meta platforms for socialising, leisure, and business, suggesting it is highly plausible that these virtual environments have far-reaching effects on the mental health of younger users – in both positive and negative ways.
“The simple fact that Meta is conducting the research revealed in recent press reports makes it clear that they believe such effects are a real possibility. But this could be a massive, wasted opportunity if the work is not conducted in line with transparent research practices,” Ellis said.
In the letter, the academics said they applauded Meta’s attempts to understand the impact of their platforms on young people but that the ‘methodologically questionable and secretive ways’ the Meta teams were conducting the research meant it was doomed to fail, creating scepticism from scientists and provoking alarm amongst lawmakers, journalists, parents and children.
“This is frustrating, because if the science was strong, data collected by Meta could inform how we understand digital technology use and its influence on mental health in unprecedented ways,” Davidson said.
The coalition of academics has called on Zuckerberg to commit to gold-standard transparency on child and adolescent mental health research, and to contribute to independent study of these issues around the globe.
“Meta provides a key missing piece to a critical data puzzle: It will be impossible to identify and promote mental health in the 21st century if we cannot study how young people are interacting online,” the academics wrote.
“Meta also has the potential to overcome a related challenge: nearly all research on the mental health of youth is based on European, North American, or English-speaking populations,” the text of the letter says, arguing that this narrow focus reinforces biases and neglects the mental health of most young people worldwide.
The academics urged Zuckerberg to set up an Independent Oversight Trust for child and adolescent mental health on Meta platforms, which would conduct research to evaluate material risks to mental health and collect scientific evidence. They said the Trust would build on Facebook’s existing Oversight Board.
“You have demonstrated your commitment to independent governance with your support of the Oversight Board in matters of free expression and legal norms. We call upon you to extend this accountability to the critical matter of youth mental health…We believe Meta can do better and we write to offer our help,” the coalition wrote.