Meta will offer data it collects about users to researchers of “well-being” topics
January 30, 2024

Meta will offer data it collects about users to researchers of “well-being” topics

To launch a pilot program exploring so-called well-being topics, Meta is teaming up with the Center for Open Science (COS). The program will apparently research our data from social networks, and Meta will offer the data it collects about users, as it claims, only on a voluntary basis. COS says it will use a “protected” data set provided by Meta for the pilot program.

The agency claims the study will help people understand “how different factors may or may not affect well-being and spark productive conversations about how to help people thrive.”

The specifics of the program remain unclear, but COS says it will use “new types of research processes” such as pre-registration and early peer review. This is important because, as he points out, proposed research questions go through peer review before being offered to research participants. This should help prevent bias and ensure that the questions are useful. The center also states that all results will be published and “not only those that confirm a hypothesis or support an existing theory.” As for the study itself, Meta tells Engadget that she hasn't started the program yet.

It's no secret that social media is actually a factory that can often create mental discomfort, and this is especially evident for children and teenagers. News of this coincides with another event, which may not be a coincidence.

Namely, Meta will testify before the US Senate Judiciary Committee this week about its failures to protect children online, along with other major social network players such as TikTok, Snap and X. However, it is worth noting that Meta's CEO Mark Zuckerberg and TikTok Show Zi Chu volunteer participants in this testimony. Snap CEO Evan Spiegel, CEO of Discord Jason Citron and CEO of X (Twitter) Linda Jacarino have been formally summoned to court.

However, despite the voluntariness, Meta has a particularly bad history when it comes to these matters. After all, 41 US states are suing the company for allegedly harming the mental health of its youngest users. The lawsuit alleges that Meta knew its “addictive” elements were bad for children and knowingly misled the public about the safety of its platforms.

Public filings from the lawsuit allege that Meta actually “coveted and solicited” children under the age of 13 and lied about how she handled minors' orders. This would be a serious violation of the US Children's Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998.

Another lawsuit claims that the algorithms of Meta apps Facebook and Instagram made it easier to sexually harass children, saying that internal company documents revealed that more than 100,000 children were sexually harassed every day. Facebook's “People You May Know” algorithm has been highlighted as a major route for connecting children with predators. The lawsuit alleges that Meta did nothing to resolve this problem when employees approached the company's authorities with concerns.

Meta claims that the timing of the announcement of the partnership with the “Center for Open Science” is a coincidence and that it was simply announced at the moment when it became effective. With all this in mind, no special analysis is needed to recognize that the “well-being” of social network users is not the most important thing in the minds of the directors of the companies behind such applications. Still, if this program would help companies like Meta move in the right direction, that's definitely a good thing.

However, the actual protection of user data always remains an open question. COS says the study will last two years and is still in the planning stages, so we will know more about the program in the coming months. In the meantime, we're keeping an eye on how the testimony of the CEOs of the companies behind the world's most popular social networks will go, whose testimony begins Wednesday at 10 a.m. ET.