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Schull teens travel to Dublin to tell Facebook to 'face up' to impact of algorithms

The students are calling on Minister Catherine Martin to hold an urgent inquiry into the conduct of Facebook.

Image: Aoife Barry

A GROUP OF teenagers from Schull Community College travelled to Facebook headquarters and Leinster House in Dublin today to tell the tech giant to ‘face up’ to the impact its algorithms have on their lives.

The teens, who wore masks to demonstrate the effect Instagram filters can have, protested outside Facebook’s offices in Grand Canal Square before walking to Leinster House on Kildare St, where they were met by a number of TDs. The event was organised by non-profit community campaigning organisation Uplift.

The teenagers handed over a letter to TDs which highlighted their concerns about the impact of social media sites and platforms, in particular when it comes to body image issues and suicidal ideation among teenage girls.

The letter, addressed to Minister Catherine Martin and Minister of State Robert Troy, demands an urgent inquiry into the conduct of Facebook. It asks for them to invite Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen to present her evidence to the Dáil and also for  Facebook executives to be called to appear before an Oireachtas committee.

It also wants the government to commit to stronger rules and laws that “minimise the harm caused by Facebook and other global digital corporations” via the Online Media Safety Regulation Bill and the European Digital Services Act. 

The letter calls on the ministers to take all necessary measures “to rein in Big Tech’s abuses while defending people’s fundamental rights”, including protecting the right to free speech. 

It also wants them to: “Ensure that people can use digital communication platforms without being reduced to products in an insidious surveillance economy.”

One of the teenagers, Niamh, said: “We are here today because we want to protect young people like myself from Facebook profiting off the insecurities that they instilled in us. We can’t let Facebook do it themselves because they are making so much money off this, they won’t stop, so it’s up to the government to protect us now.”

Another teenager, Megan, said: “We’re all just a bit annoyed that we’ve had to miss school today because these people running Facebook can’t be arsed to protect us. We have to be up here when we should be in school, we should be learning – instead we have to ask them: Hey, can you do something [about this].”

Megan told The Journal that she had friends who had been on social media since they were in primary school. She grew concerned about the ads they were seeing, which she said included ads for diet pills. “They would be talking about plastic surgery at that young [age],” she said.

“We’re here to try and change that so young people don’t feel that if I don’t look a certain way, then I’m not good enough.”

Niamh added: “For me there was the plastic surgery element, in that you’re seeing all these beautiful women that are pushed to you as the beauty standard, and then you’re being told about all the different surgeries they’ve had, and this is very representative of what is going on.”

She said it took effort for her to learn about what was going on with social media algorithms, and that there should be more education for teenagers, particularly around filters and body image. “I don’t see any of that [education] coming from Facebook,” she said.

She said the message for Facebook was to please protect teens like them. 

Their appearance at Leinster House comes weeks after former Facebook employee Frances Haugen spoke before a US Senate subcommittee about the impact of Facebook (now Meta)’s platforms on the mental health of teenagers. Haugen told senators:

“Facebook knows things like engagement-based ranking on Instagram can lead children from very innocuous topics, like healthy recipes, to anorexia-promoting content over a very short period of time.”

The government is currently working on the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill, which aims to close the legal gap when it comes to addressing harmful content that’s posted online. It will include online safety codes, and measures that online services can take to tackle such content, including cyberbullying, on their sites and platforms. 

Social Democrats TD Holly Cairns, who went to the school the teenagers attend in Schull, was one of the TDs present today. She told The Journal: “From a public representative’s point of view, we’re always hearing from adults. They’re getting in touch with our office. And if several people get in touch with my office about an issue, given that I agree with what they’re calling for, I’m likely to raise it, and that’s the same for all public representatives – and often time the only time government changes things is when there is enough public pressure, and ultimately we never hear enough from young people.”

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“I think it’s really great seeing them up here today, using their voice. As one of the girls there said, they had to take a day off school to do this today, and that’s absolutely outrageous.”

Other TDs who met the teens and spoke to them about their letter included Sinn Féin TDs Imelda Munster and Fintan Warfield, Fine Gael TD Emer Higgins and Fianna Fáil Senator Malcolm Byrne.

On Instagram content, Meta, Facebook’s parent company, told The Journal: “We’ve never allowed content that promotes or encourages suicide, self-harm or eating disorders, and in the last few years we’ve updated our policies to ban even more content. Experts tell us social media can play an important role in destigmatising mental health, by giving people a place to talk about their experiences and find support. That’s why we do allow people to discuss these issues, though we aim not to recommend this type of content. We’ll keep working with experts around the world so we can continue to strike this important balance.”  

The spokesperson added that Met agrees “that the internet needs regulation; rules established through a democratic process could add more legitimacy and trust than rules defined by companies like ours alone and we have long called for the regulation of online content. Earlier this year, we called on the Government to establish the Media Commission and appoint an Online Safety Commissioner.”

Earlier this month, Facebook released an update on how it plans to reduce bullying and harassment. It said that it has recently updated its AI technology to train across three different but related violations: bullying and harassment, hate speech and violence and incitement.

It also recently updated its policies to increase enforcement against harmful content and behaviour for both private individuals and public figures.

In September, it responded to a Wall Street Journal report on Instagram being “toxic for teenage girls” saying that: “Instagram’s research shows that on 11 of 12 well-being issues, teenage girls who said they struggled with those difficult issues also said that Instagram made them better rather than worse.”

“This research, like external research on these issues, found teens report having both positive and negative experiences with social media.”

The company denied that the research shows that Instagram is “toxic” for teen girls. “The research actually demonstrated that many teens we heard from feel that using Instagram helps them when they are struggling with the kinds of hard moments and issues teenagers have always faced,” it said. 

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