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‘She opens the app and gets bombarded’: parents on Instagram, teens and eating disorders | Instagram

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Early in the Covid-19 pandemic, Michelle noticed her teenage daughters were spending substantially more time on Instagram.

The girls were feeling isolated and bored during lockdown, the Arizona mom, who has asked to only be identified by her first name to maintain her children’s privacy, recalled. She hoped social media could be a way for them to remain connected with their friends and community.

But as the months progressed, the girls fell into pro-diet, pro-exercise and ultimately pro-eating disorder hashtags on the social media app. It started with “health challenge” photos and recipe videos, Michelle said, which led to more similar content in their feeds. Six months later, both had started restricting their food intake. Her eldest daughter developed “severe anorexia” and nearly had to be admitted to a health facility, Michelle said. Michelle attributes their spiral largely to the influence of social media.

“Of course Instagram does not cause eating disorders,” Michelle told the Guardian. “These are complex illnesses caused by a combination of genetics, neurobiology and other factors. But it helps to trigger them and keeps teens trapped in this completely toxic culture.”

Testimony from the Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen last week revealed what parents of teens with unhealthy eating behaviors due to body-image fears had long known: Instagram has a substantial negative impact on some girls’ mental health regarding issues such as body image and self-esteem.

Internal research Haugen shared with the Wall Street Journal found the platform sends some girls on a “downward spiral”. According to one March 2020 presentation about the research, “32% of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse”.

Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But the company has disputed the characterization of its internal research on Instagram. “It is simply not accurate that this research demonstrates Instagram is ‘toxic’ for teen girls,” the company said in a statement last month. “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.” The company has also criticized the internal presentation that the Wall Street Journal reporting was based on.

But parents of teens with eating disorders who spoke with the Guardian following Haugen’s testimony said that finding out that Instagram’s parent company had research on Instagram’s impact had been infuriating.

They explained how their children had been directed from videos about recipes or exercise into pro-eating-disorder content and weight-loss progress images. And they said they struggled to regulate their children’s use of social media, which has become inextricable from their kids’ daily lives.

Frances Haugen speaks before senators in Washington.
Frances Haugen speaks before senators in Washington. Photograph: Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/REX/Shutterstock

“They are responsible for triggering serious eating disorders in many individuals,” Michelle said about Facebook. “And after what we learned this week, it is evident they don’t care as long as they’re making money.”

‘There is nothing we can do about it’

Neveen Radwan, a parent living in the San Francisco Bay Area, said social media “has played a humongous role” in her 17-year-old daughter’s eating disorder. The teen had been harmed not only by content that was explicitly pro-anorexia or weight loss, she said, but also by edited photos of influencers and real-life friends.

“The second she opens the app, she is bombarded by photos that are filtered, that are manipulated,” Radwan said. “She is trying to attain something that is unachievable.”

Over the past few years, Radwan’s daughter has journeyed down a long road of recovery from a severe eating disorder. At one point, her weight was down to 74lb. Her heart stopped beating and she had to be airlifted to a specialized facility.

To help her daughter avoid the triggers she believes helped send her to the hospital, Radwan tried installing a number of safeguards on the girl’s phone. She uses built-in iPhone tools to keep her daughter from downloading apps without permission and monitors her online activity.

Recently, after a year and a half in treatment, Radwan’s daughter was allowed to have her phone back. But within 30 minutes, the teen had sneaked around the restrictions to log into Instagram from the phone’s browser, Radwan said.

When her daughter had opened the app, her algorithm had been right where she had left it, Radwan said, in the midst of an endless feed of unhealthy eating and diet content.

“Once you look at one video, the algorithm takes off and they don’t stop coming – it’s like dominoes falling,” Radwan said. “It is horrific, and there is nothing we can do about it.”

Experts say that Facebook, however, could do something about it. There are a number of proven tools that would prevent the spread of harmful content and misinformation, especially as it relates to eating disorders, according to Madelyn Webb, associate research director for Media Matters for America.

She explained that the algorithms recommend content similar to what users have shared, viewed, or clicked on in the past – creating a feedback loop that some vulnerable teens cannot escape.

“But they will never change it because their profit model is fundamentally based on getting more clicks,” she said.

Haugen, in her testimony, suggested Facebook return to a chronological rather than algorithmically driven timeline on the platform to reduce the spread of misinformation and inflammatory content.

Facebook has said it works to minimize such content by restricting hashtags that promote it. But a report released in September by the advocacy group SumOfUs found 22 different hashtags promoting eating disorders still existed on Instagram at the time, and were connected to over 45m eating disorder-related posts.

The report found 86.7% of eating disorder posts the researchers analyzed were pushing unapproved appetite suppressants and 52.9% directly promoted eating disorders.

Lucy, a mother in the Washington DC area who asked to be identified by a pseudonym to protect her privacy, said her daughter had struggled with an eating disorder at age 11 and had spent several years in remission.

But when her social media use started picking up during the coronavirus pandemic, the eating disorder re-emerged. Lucy said her daughter had changed quickly.

“By the time we found out she was getting this negative body messaging, it was too late – she was already into the eating disorder,” she said. “We watched our smart, lovely, caring, empathetic daughter turn into someone else.”

She also has taken measures to limit her daughter’s social media use – banning her phone from her room at night, restricting time on social media apps, and talking to her about responsible use. But she can’t take away the device completely as so much of her daughter’s school and social life relies on it.

“Having that phone is like having a 24/7 billboard in front of you that says, ‘Don’t eat,’” Lucy said.

Compounding the problem, she added, was the difficulty in finding good and affordable care for teens like her daughter. “In much of the country there are no therapists. There are waiting lists for treatment facilities. And while you wait, this disease gets stronger, and people get closer to death.”

The rate of eating disorders has risen sharply in recent years, in particular following the onset of the pandemic. A study published by CS Mott children’s hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan, found that the total number of admissions to the hospital of children with eating disorders during the first 12 months of the pandemic was more than the average from the previous three years – at 125 young people compared with 56 in previous years.

Meanwhile, access to treatment in the US has remained extremely limited. Hospitals have run out of beds and inpatient treatment centers have long waiting lists.

Despite what many parents see as a direct line between Facebook and Instagram content and their children’s eating disorders, many struggle to leave the platform themselves.

Lucy, the mother in Washington, said she felt “extremely conflicted” about her Facebook usage because the closed groups for parents of children dealing with eating disorders had been “a godsend”.

She recalled a particularly rough day when her daughter lashed out at her after she urged her to eat a small amount of food. Crying and unable to sleep, Lucy posted to the group in the middle of the night in desperation.

“Suddenly dozens of people all over the world who knew what I was going through are telling me ‘you’ll get through this’ – it made a huge difference,” she said. “It also helps me when I can help other people. Because there is such a stigma around this disease, and this can be such a lonely road.”

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TechScape: From Friends to Squid Game – why Netflix viewing figures matter | Technology

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I’m going to try to convince you that you should care about exactly how many people watched the moral panic-inducing hit Netflix series Squid Game. Yes, I know there’s a lot going on in the world. But bear with me: I think this really matters regarding how we understand our culture – and the balance of power in a media business where data is king.

(As a treat, if you stick with this newsletter then further down I’ll tell you about some of the biggest flops that Netflix would prefer you didn’t know about.)

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In the past it was simple to find out how many people watched a popular television show. Audience figures for traditional television broadcasts have been produced in a similar way for decades. Research companies recruit a group of households considered to be statistically representative of the general population (in the UK this is done by Barb, in the US by Nielsen) and then their viewing habits are monitored, often using a box attached to their television set.

This data is then processed and used to produce industry-standard television ratings that can make or break careers. Journalists love these figures because you can make narratives out of them! It’s why you see headlines in news outlets about how half of the UK watched a football match, or how no one watched a new rightwing news channel.

These figures are made public, in part, because commercial television channels have advertisers. And advertisers need to know their adverts are actually being watched, so they need reliable and trustworthy numbers produced by a third-party organisation. Sure, this survey system is flawed, but broadly speaking it is equally flawed for everyone. You can tell if a programme on BBC is much more popular than a show on ITV, and you can tell if a particular drama massively outperformed what you’d expect.

Enter Netflix

Then Netflix and subscription streaming services came along. They don’t have advertisers. Their aim is to hook, retain, and encourage customers to keep using their service until it becomes so ingrained in their lives that they can never stop paying their monthly subscription fee. Core to working out how to do this is the data they collect on you.

Because Netflix knows exactly what shows you watch. They know how many seconds you lasted with each programme, when you got bored, what you put on instead when you got bored, and exactly what time of night you were watching that smutty foreign series. And it’s really not in Netflix’s interest to share this information with journalists, their rivals, or with the people who make the shows.

Which brings us back to the original question: How many people watched Squid Game? And why does it matter?

Well, if you believe Netflix, who occasionally drip-feed out positive ratings stories when it suits them, by last night Squid Game had been watched by 142 million households, making it one of the biggest hits ever.

But we’ve only got Netflix’s word to go on for that figure. And even then, Netflix currently defines a viewer as someone who watched the first two minutes of a show’s opening episode. Did you put Squid Game on for a few minutes to check out the hype then get bored? Well, you might be surprised to find you’re counted to be just as much a “fan” of the show as someone who watched all nine episodes back-to-back.

Journalistically, it’s a challenge. We end up having to accept Netflix’s word for the figures they provide because there’s simply no other option. It also enables the streaming outlets to selectively publish the narrative that they want to construct. It’s sexy and cool to trumpet your investment in high-end original drama. (And hell, Netflix really is investing incredible sums in high-end original drama!) It’s less sexy to admit that your critically acclaimed show was a ratings flop and people just want to watch endless repeats of Grand Designs.

What’s more, it warps our perceptions of audiences and what is popular in culture. Is a Netflix drama more popular than a BBC drama? Possibly. This may have enormous implications for the future of whether we still need the licence fee. Does the public really engage with Oscar-nominated state-of-the-nation films or secretly sit there watching another Adam Sandler release? With the culture wars grinding on, it’s probably worth knowing. What are the truly unifying television moments that bind a society together? It’s hard to be sure. Because we can’t get the data out of Netflix.

The truth is out there

Except … one small family business based in Bristol has worked out how to do just that. The staff at Digital i, an analytics firm, realised that while Netflix won’t release viewing figures, it does release data to members of the public about their personal viewing history.

(It’s true, you can see an overview of your recent Netflix viewing history, or you can download every bit of data that Netflix holds on you by visiting this link. In my case, it reveals that I was really binge-watching an awful lot of episodes of The Good Wife in 2015.)

Digital i realised that if they could convince thousands individuals to willingly hand over this personal viewing history in return for a small payment, the company can effectively create a statistically rigorous survey panel, then use this to create audience “ratings” for Netflix shows and sell this data to rivals. At the moment they have users signed up in five major European countries but they hope to expand globally.

“We’re trying to level the playing field for Netflix competitors,” said Sophia Vahdati from the company, who says their customers include the likes of BBC and ITV.

Her company has shone a light on one of Netflix’s biggest secret: how much of their audience is viewing endless repeats of old shows, because people binge high-profile original series in such a short period of time.

“The biggest thing that isn’t mentioned in the hype is how important sitcoms are to retaining Netflix subscribers,” she said, highlighting the availability of Brooklyn 99 and Big Bang Theory as just as core to Netflix’s offering as their buzzy acclaimed shows.

Here’s some of the findings of their Digital i’s data from its UK audience research that she shared with the Guardian:

  • British Netflix users spent more time watching old episodes of Friends in 2020 than watching big-budget original series the Crown.

  • The three most popular new releases in the UK during August were Clickbait (watched by 2.34m Netflix accounts), Hit & Run (2.1m households), and The Chair (1.64m). These are high ratings but Channel 5 can top them.

  • Sex Education Series 3 was released on the same day as Squid Game and performed just as well in Europe – but has had a fraction of the hype.

  • Shows such Bridgerton, Afterlife and The Queen’s Gambit were all hitting over 80% completion rates in the UK – meaning people were hooked and watched to the end of each series.

  • At the other end of the market, the five shows with the worst series completion rates were The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance (just 35% of viewers finished it), What/If (45%), The Irregulars (53%), White Lines (56%), and Sex/Life (56%) – which explains why most of them were cancelled.

  • Any film that is watched to the end by 70% of people is a success. Martin Scorsese’s big-budget much-hyped Irishman? That struggled, on their metrics.

  • People now watch original series in a very short space of time – about a quarter of people who watched Squid Game finished it within two days.

  • Even though Netflix and Amazon Prime Video are not far apart in terms of signed-up users, Netflix dwarfs Amazon when it comes to people actually watching their content.

  • Oh and almost no one chooses to watch the credits nowadays. Sorry to everyone who made the programmes, we’ve already autoplayed the next episode.

So why does all this matter?

A lack of transparency changes the balance of of power when it comes to small companies negotiating with a global giant such as Netflix.

One independent producer who sold a film to Netflix suspects their release performed well, based on online reaction. But they told me that they just don’t know: “Netflix doesn’t usually give producers information about viewing figures of films they made – which is both frustrating and very disempowering for producers trying to negotiate funding for the next one, with them or anyone else.”

And for Squid Game? Digital i reckons 79% of Europeans with Netflix on their research panel watched at least one episode within the first fortnight of its release – with half making it all the way to the end in that time. So it really is a massive hit. Just perhaps not quite as big as Netflix’s own figures would suggest.

Last night, the streaming company announced that they would slightly change the metrics they use and drop the “two minutes watched” measure in favour of total hours watched. But it’s still in the company’s gift when they make the information public.

Vahdati says her company’s data shows how the streamer can selectively release data to shape the narrative about their output: “The originals are punchy, sharp and aesthetically innovative. But at the heart of it we haven’t become a nation who like to be challenged all the time with foreign-language dramas.”

Oh – and if you’re one of the many Squid Game viewers, then no spoilers please. I’m still only two episodes in.

If you want to read the complete version of this newsletter please subscribe to receive TechScape in your inbox every Wednesday.

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Facebook to pick new name? The Register has some suggestions • The Register

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Node.js 17 is out, loaded with OpenSSL 3 and other new features, but it is not intended for use in production – and the promotion for Node.js 16 to an LTS release, expected soon, may be more important to most developers.

The release cycle is based on six-monthly major versions, with only the even numbers becoming LTS (long term support) editions. The rule is that a new even-numbered release becomes LTS six months later. All releases get six months of support. This means that Node.js 17 is primarily for testing and experimentation, but also that Node.js 16 (released in April) is about to become LTS. New features in 16 included version 9.0 of the V8 JavaScript engine and prebuilt Apple silicon binaries.

“We put together the LTS release process almost five years ago, it works quite well in that we’re balancing [the fact] that some people want the latest, others prefer to have things be stable… when we go LTS,” Red Hat’s Michael Dawson, chair of the Node.js Technical Steering Committee, told The Register.

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Finnish cloud and open source company reaches $2bn unicorn valuation

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Aiven’s track record in the open source community which it plans to build on, has been praised by investors including IVP and World Innovation Lab.

Finnish cloud and open source company Aiven has achieved a $2bn unicorn valuation following the extension of its Series C funding round.

The total sum it secured in the funding round was $160m, bringing its total funding to date to $210m. The round was co-led by the company’s existing investors, World Innovation Lab and IVP, along with participation from others such as Atomico.

Several investors increased their funding commitments just seven months after the company’s initial $100m Series C round.

The software company plans to use the capital to expand its operations into the Asia-Pacific region by opening an office in Singapore. Aiven already has a presence in Helsinki, where its 230 employees work in various tech hubs in the Finnish capital reaching clients in Berlin, Boston, Toronto and Sydney.

“This is an exciting step for Aiven on our journey and indicates that our team is successfully delivering on our mission to champion open source and make the lives of developers better in all that we do,” said Oskari Saarenmaa, the company’s CEO and co-founder.

“The additional funding from our existing investors will allow us to rapidly expand our global footprint, significantly contribute to the open source community and support the growth of other tech start-ups,” he added.

Investment in the wider community

The company plans to continue its investment in the wider open source community. Later this year, it will launch its own start-up programme, which will offer participants one year’s mentoring as well as free access to Aiven’s data platform.

According to Eric Liaw, general partner at IVP, his firm originally invested in Aiven in January of 2020 “behind a belief that the company’s outstanding product and platform would enable companies of all sizes to manage their exploding data needs easily and efficiently”.

Liaw praised Saarenmaa’s leadership, adding that the Aiven team is delivering “tremendous value” for their customers, and that the company “has more than quadrupled” since IVP’s original investment.

Tsune Shirota, partner at World Innovation Lab echoed Liaw’s assessment of the company’s growth.

“Aiven’s expertise in open source and cloud is deeply resonating with customers, as seen by its quickly growing and diverse customer base of over 700 companies in over 50 countries. We are excited to significantly increase our commitment and look forward to supporting Aiven’s growth and its effort to drive further innovation in the data cloud,” concluded Shirota.

In February, Aiven’s CTO Heikki Nousiainen spoke to Silicon Republic about future data trends as well as how businesses can be successful with digital transformation.

Don’t miss out on the knowledge you need to succeed. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of need-to-know sci-tech news.

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