Contrary to what you’ve heard from the press and Congress, the internal documents leaked by former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen do not prove that that the company’s Instagram platform is psychologically scarring teenagers. But the current furor does clearly demonstrate another psychological phenomenon: the Fredric Wertham effect, named for a New York psychiatrist who, like Haugen, starred at a nationally televised Senate hearing about a toxic new media menace to America’s youth.
Wertham testified in 1954 about his book, Seduction of the Innocent, which he described as the result of “painstaking, laborious clinical study.” After reciting his scientific credentials, Wertham declared: “It is my opinion, without any reasonable doubt and without any reservation, that comic books are an important contributing factor in many cases of juvenile delinquency.”
The hearing made the front page of the New York Times, one of many publications (including The New Yorker) to give Wertham’s book a glowing review. Others featured his warnings under headlines like “Depravity for Children” and “Horror in the Nursery.” During the great comic book scare, as the historian David Hajdu calls it, churches and the American Legion organized events across the country where schoolchildren tossed comics into bonfires. Wertham’s recommendation “to legislate these books off the newsstands and out of the candy stores” inspired dozens of state and municipal laws banning or regulating comic books, and many people in the industry lost their jobs.
There was never any good evidence that comic books hurt children. Wertham’s work was a jumble of anecdotes about troubled youths and unsupported conjectures about comic books inspiring violent crimes. He fretted, as today’s Instagram critics do, that the unrealistic images of curvaceous bodies were psychologically damaging girls and claimed that superheroes were promoting everything from homosexuality (Batman and Robin, Wonder Woman) to fascism (Superman). Contemporaries like the sociologist Frederic Thrasher lambasted Wertham’s work as “prejudiced and worthless,” and it was later exposed as fraudulent.
As we’ve learned repeatedly, scientific rigor doesn’t matter to journalists and politicians eager to blame children’s problems on any new trend in media or entertainment, whether it’s television, rock and roll, Dungeons and Dragons, heavy metal music, cell phones, rap lyrics, or video games. That’s the Fredric Wertham effect, which produces evidence-free moral panics and demands for government crackdowns.
The villain du jour is Facebook, which is being compared with Big Tobacco because its own confidential research supposedly proves how dangerous its product is. The research was revealed in a Wall Street Journal article, “Facebook Knows Instagram Is Toxic for Many Teen Girls, Company Documents Show,” which cited a survey finding that 32 percent of teenage girls who were experiencing body-image issues said that Instagram made them feel worse about their problem. But most of the girls surveyed said that Instagram either had no effect (46 percent) or made them feel better (22 percent). And the issue of body image was the subject of just one of the survey’s 12 questions. On the other 11 (covering problems like loneliness, anxiety, sadness, and social comparison), the girls who said Instagram made them feel better outnumbered those who said it made them feel worse. The teenage boys in the survey skewed heavily positive on all the questions.
A fairer headline would be, “Facebook Knows Instagram Makes Most Teenagers Feel Better About Their Problems,” but that would be wrong, too. Nobody can draw definitive conclusions from this survey, as psychologists have been quick to point out. “Asking people to introspect on the causes of their own mental health,” notes Stuart Ritchie of King’s College London, “is hardly a reliable way of getting to the truth, given how much is going on in any one person’s life that might positively or negatively affect their wellbeing.” It’s even less reliable when they’re asked leading questions encouraging them to identify one specific cause.
Social scientists have conducted more rigorous analyses by measuring and tracking trends in teenagers’ social media use and psychological problems. Some have found negative effects—and gotten lots of publicity, just like Wertham. But other studies have found that social media use doesn’t seem to worsen problems and that it can even be a net benefit to teenagers.
The debate is far from resolved, but for now the most authoritative opinion comes from a study conducted jointly by the media-psychology divisions of the American Psychological Association and the psychological societies of the United Kingdom and Ireland. The international team of 14 researchers did a meta-analysis of 37 social media studies published in the past six years. The lead author of the study, currently in press at Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, is Christopher Ferguson of Stetson University.
“Our large meta-analysis,” Ferguson says, “finds that, while there certainly are between-study differences, overall effects seen across the field were too close to zero to support the hypothesis that social media or other screen time predicts mental health problems in users. This doesn’t mean nobody is ever affected negatively, nor that some people might be helped by social media, just that on the aggregate it is a social neutral, even among teens.”
Ferguson, of course, was not asked to testify at the Senate hearing. His rigorous research couldn’t compete with the claims of so-called whistleblower Haugen, who also happens to be a frequent campaign donor to progressive Democrats and has received guidance from veteran Democratic strategists. The legacy media and politicians have lionized her, as Glenn Greenwald writes, “because she advances their quest for greater control over online political discourse.”
Threats from the White House and Congress have already cowed Facebook and other platforms into banishing conservatives and censoring scientists and journalists who question progressive orthodoxy. Now senators like Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut Democrat, who met with Haugen even before her revelations were published, are claiming that this “Big Tobacco moment” gives Washington a justification to exert far more direct control.
Facebook is itself advocating stricter federal controls of social media. That may seem odd, given that new requirements for placating regulators and moderating content would be a costly burden, but Facebook can bear the expense much more easily than its smaller competitors. Many of them might well be forced out of business, so the net effect would be to make Facebook more profitable than ever—and more eager to censor speech that offends the political establishment.
That was exactly how the comic book industry responded to the Wertham scare in the 1950s. Many publishers went out of business, but others survived by self-censorship. They established an industry group called the Comics Code Authority and abided by its long list of prohibitions, which Hajdu describes in his history as “an unprecedented (and never surpassed) monument of self-imposed repression and prudery.”
Besides banning “suggestive” illustrations and words with “undesirable meanings,” the Comics Code decreed that “policemen, judges, government officials and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.” It was all done in the name of protecting children—but the chief beneficiaries of the Fredric Wertham effect, then and now, are inevitably the adults who fabricate the scare.
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