February 23, 2024

Meta is teaming up with the Center for Open Science (COS) to start a pilot program that studies “topics related to well-being.” It looks like the program will dive into our social media data, but on a voluntary basis, as COS says it will use a “privacy-preserving” dataset provided by Meta for the pilot program. The agency says the study should help people understand “how different factors may or may not impact well-being and inform productive conversations about how to help people thrive.”

The specifics of the program remain opaque, but COS says it’ll use “new types of research processes” like pre-registration and early peer review. That last one is important, as it sends proposed research questions to peer review before being issued to participants. This should help stave off bias and ensure the questions are actually useful. The agency also says that all results will be published and “not just those that confirm one’s hypothesis or support a prevailing theory.” As for the actual study, Meta told Engadget that it hasn’t started yet.

As for a totally non-scientific study on the effects of social media, using it for even ten minutes transforms any dopamine in my brain to the swamps of sadness from The Neverending Story. You could be the same. It’s no secret that social media is basically a factory that creates mental unease, and this is particularly true for kids and teens.

So, why announce this partnership today of all days? It could be a coincidence, but the timing sure is funny. Meta is set to testify this week in front of the US Senate Judiciary Committee about its failures to protect kids online, along with other social media bigwigs like TikTok, Snap and X. It is worth noting, however, that Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg and TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew are willing participants in this testimony. Snap CEO Evan Spiegel, Discord CEO Jason Citron and X CEO Linda Yaccarino had to be formally subpoenaed.

However, Meta has a particularly bad track record when it comes to this stuff. After all, the company’s being sued by 41 states for allegedly harming the mental health of its youngest users. The suit claims Meta knew its “addictive” features were bad for kids and intentionally misled the public about the safety of its platforms.

Unsealed documents from the suit claim that Meta actually “coveted and pursued” children under 13 and lied about how it handled underage accounts once discovered, often failing to disable these accounts while continuing to harvest data. This would be a brazen violation of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998.

Another lawsuit alleges that Facebook and Instagram’s algorithms facilitated child sexual harassment, with the complaint stating that Meta’s own internal documents said over 100,000 kids were harassed daily. Facebook’s “People You May Know” algorithm was singled out as a primary conduit to connect children to predators. The complaint alleges that Meta did nothing to stop this issue when approached by concerned employees. For Meta’s part, it maintains the timing is a coincidence and that the announcement was timed for when the partnership went into effect.

With all of this in mind, it doesn’t really take a study to recognize that the “well-being” of users isn’t exactly the most important thing on the minds of social media CEOs. Still, if the program helps these companies move in the right direction, that’s certainly cool. COS says the study will take two years and that it’s still in the early planning stages. We’ll know more in the coming months. In the meantime, you can watch CEO Zuckerberg and all the rest testify before congress on Wednesday at 10 AM ET.

Update, January 29 2024, 7:40PM ET: This story has been updated to include timing information from Meta and clarification as to when a study would start.