Emily started using Instagram when she was in her mid-teens and found it helpful at first. She used the photo-sharing app to follow fitness influencers, but what began as a constructive relationship with the platform spiralled into a crisis centred on body image. At 19 she was diagnosed with an eating disorder.
“I felt like my body wasn’t good enough, because even though I did go to the gym a lot, my body still never looked like the bodies of these influencers,” says Emily, now a 20-year-old a student who is in recovery.
Emily, who preferred not to use her real name, uses Instagram sparingly now. She is one of many Instagram users whose suffering came to prominence this week with revelations that the platform’s owner, Facebook, seemed to know it was damaging teenage girls’ mental health.
According to internal research leaked to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), the app has made body image issues worse for one in three girls and in one Facebook study of teenagers in the UK and the US, more than 40% of Instagram users who said they felt “unattractive” said the feeling began while using the app.
Instagram has more than 1 billion users worldwide and an estimated 30 million in the UK, with Kim Kardashian, Selena Gomez and Ariana Grande among the accounts with hundreds of millions of followers between them. In the UK, the Love Island couple Liam Reardon and Millie Court have already raced to a combined following of nearly 3 million since winning the 2021 title.
Two in five girls (40%) aged 11 to 16 in the UK say they have seen images online that have made them feel insecure or less confident about themselves. This increases to half (50%) in girls aged 17 to 21, according to research by Girlguiding in its annual girls’ attitudes survey.
Sonia Livingstone, professor of social psychology at the department of media and communications, LSE, describes adolescence for teenage girls as an “arc” that tends to begin with the staple experiences of interest in pets, painting or playing with younger siblings, through to the more confident young woman ready to face the world. But it is the experience in the middle of that parabola that represents a particular challenge, and where Instagram can be most troubling.
“It is at that point where they are assailed with many answers to their dilemmas and a prominent answer at the moment is that it might be what they look like, that it matters what they bought,” says Livingstone, who next week is due to give evidence to MPs and peers scrutinising the draft UK online safety bill, which imposes a duty of care on social media companies to protect users from harmful content.
Facebook’s in-depth research into the photo-sharing app stated that Instagram had a deeper effect on teenage girls because it focused more on the body and lifestyle, compared with TikTok’s emphasis on performance videos such as dancing, and Snapchat’s jokey face features. “Social comparison is worse on Instagram,” said the Facebook study. The leaked research pointed to the app’s Explore page, where an algorithm tailors the photos and videos that a user sees, potentially creating a spiral of harmful content.
“Aspects of Instagram exacerbate each other to create a perfect storm,” said the research.
Livingstone says a key feature of the online safety bill will be its provisions on regulating the algorithms that constantly tailor and tweak what you view according to your perceived needs and tastes – and can push teenage girls into that vortex of esteem-damaging content. “There is a lot to be done about algorithms and AI [artificial intelligence].”
Beeban Kidron, the crossbench peer who sits on the joint committee into the online safety bill and was behind the recent introduction of a children’s privacy code, says Ofcom, the UK communications watchdog, will have a vital role in scrutinising algorithms.
“The value in algorithmic oversight for regulators, is that the decisions that tech companies make will become transparent, including decisions like FB took to allow Instagram to target teenage girls with images and features that ended in anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. Algorithmic oversight is the key to society wrestling back some control.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport says the bill will address those concerns. “As part of their duty of care, companies will need to mitigate the risks of their algorithms promoting illegal or harmful content, particularly to children. Ofcom will have a range of powers to ensure they do this, including the ability to request information and enter companies’ premises to access data and equipment.”
For others, there is a wider issue of educating the young how to navigate a world dominated by social media. Deana Puccio, co-founder of the Rap project, which visits schools across the UK and abroad to discuss issues such as consent, online and offline safety and building confidence in body image and self-esteem, says the bill should be accompanied by a wider education drive.
“We, parents, educators, politicians need to equip our young people with the tools, the analytical skills to make healthy choices for themselves. Because they will get access to whatever they want to. They are better at navigating the online world than we are.”
Puccio adds that teenagers should be encouraged to make their social media posts reflect a more realistic vision of the world. “We need to start building up people’s confidence to post real-life ups and downs.”
The head of Instagram risked fanning criticism of the app on Thursday with comments that compared social media’s impact on society to that of cars. “We know that more people die than would otherwise because of car accidents, but by and large, cars create way more value in the world than they destroy. And I think social media is similar,” said Adam Mosseri.
Facebook referred the Guardian to a blogpost by Karina Newton, the head of public policy at Instagram, who said the internal research showed “our commitment to understanding complex and difficult issues young people may struggle with, and informs all the work we do to help those experiencing these issues”.
Responding to the algorithm and drug cartel allegations, Facebook said divisions had existed in society long before its platform appeared and that it had a “comprehensive strategy” for keeping people safe in countries where there was a risk of conflict and violence.
Despite a record number of publicly disclosed security flaws in 2021, Microsoft managed to improve its stats, according to research from BeyondTrust.
Figures from the National Vulnerability Database (NVD) of the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) show last year broke all records for security vulnerabilities. By December, according to pentester Redscan, 18,439 were recorded. That’s an average of more than 50 flaws a day.
However just 1,212 vulnerabilities were reported in Microsoft products last year, said BeyondTrust, a 5 percent drop on the previous year. In addition, critical vulnerabilities in the software (those with a CVSS score of 9 or more) plunged 47 percent, with the drop in Windows Server specifically down 50 percent. There was bad news for Internet Explorer and Edge vulnerabilities, though: they were up 280 percent on the prior year, with 349 flaws spotted in 2021.
BeyondTrust commented that analysis had been simplified by Microsoft’s move to the Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS), although an unfortunate side effect meant that security gurus can now determine the impact of administrative rights on critical vulnerabilities.
“From 2015 to 2020,” said the report, “removing admin rights could have mitigated, on average, 75 percent of critical vulnerabilities.”
It’s a very good point: keeping permissions to the bare minimum is excellent practice, although difficult to enforce.
The decline in vulnerabilities marks a change for Microsoft. In 2016, the count of vulnerabilities stood at 451, according to the report. By 2020 they had leapt to 1,268. A drop, even if only to 1,212, is a first. It’s just as well since between 2019 and 2020, there was a 48 percent rise in vulnerabilities year on year.
And the trendiest categories are…
The report also drilled into vulnerability categories. Topping the table with 326 and 588 vulnerabilities respectively were Remote Code Execution and Elevation of Privilege flaws, with the latter up from 559 in 2020. RCE was itself down in 2021 from 345 in the prior year.
Explaining the apparent explosion in Edge and Internet Explorer numbers (349 vulnerabilities up from 92 in 2020), BeyondTrust pointed to a consolidation in the browser market and a renewed focus on browser attacks as exploited plugins (such as Flash) were dropped and bug bounties made reporting vulnerabilities more financially attractive. It also pointed out that only six were critical (a record low).
The decline in Windows vulnerabilities was attributed to Microsoft’s efforts to improve the security architecture of its supported products, as was the fall in Windows Server holes. The move from security as an afterthought to something front and center is also a factor, even if it has taken a few iterations of operating systems.
That said, there were some spectacular holes in the company’s products during 2021. Last year’s Exchange Server vulnerabilities, for example, left many administrators scrambling to patch systems. 2021’s stability, from the standpoint of Microsoft’s vulnerabilities, must be considered alongside the rapid rises of previous years.
As the report authors note, simply patching the problems might not deal with the underlying issues. Removing admin rights and privileges also play a part in reducing the attack surface. ®
The new Ford Geofencing Speed Limit Control system alerts a driver when the car breaks a speed limit – then slows down the vehicle.
Speed limit signs may soon be a thing of the past as Ford is now trialling connected vehicle technology that can automatically reduce a car’s speed in certain zones to improve road safety.
Up to 29pc of all road fatalities in Europe, depending on the country, are pedestrians and cyclists, according to a 2020 report by the European Transport Safety Council. Setting up speed limits in certain areas is one of the frontline measures to minimise road accidents.
Now, US carmaker Ford is testing its new Geofencing Speed Limit Control system across two German cities, Cologne and Aachen, to see if the technology can help in making roads safer, preventing fines for drivers and improving the appearance of roadsides.
A geofence is a virtual parameter in a real-world area. It is often used by mobility companies and start-ups, such as Ireland’s Zipp Mobility, to identify and enforce low-speed zones in cities.
How does it work?
Ford’s new system uses geofencing technology to alert a driver through the dashboard when the vehicle enters an area with a designated speed limit. It then lowers the vehicle speed to match the limit automatically.
However, the driver can override the automated system and deactivate speed limit control at any time. They can also use the technology to set their own geofencing zones at speed as low as 20kmph.
“Connected vehicle technology has the proven potential to help make everyday driving easier and safer to benefit everyone, not just the person behind the wheel,” said Michael Huynh, manager of City Engagement Germany at Ford Europe.
“Geofencing can ensure speeds are reduced where – and even when – necessary to help improve safety and create a more pleasant environment.”
Ford already has in-built assistance technologies that help drivers ensure they are abiding by speed limits. However, the new geofencing speed limit control system is the first that can automatically reduce a vehicle’s speed without the driver’s intervention.
Eyes on the road
The year-long trial that runs until March 2023 is collaboration between the Ford City Engagement team, city officials in Cologne and Aachen, and Ford software engineers in Palo Alto, California.
Together with colleagues in Aachen, the Palo Alto engineers developed technology that connects the vehicle to the geofencing system for GPS tracking and data exchange.
Germany has more than 1,000 types of road signs, which can often confuse drivers and distract them from the road ahead. Geofencing technologies such as the new Ford system can help drivers stay focused.
“Our drivers should benefit from the latest technical support, including geofencing based assistant systems that enable them to keep to the speed limits and fully concentrate on the road,” said Dr Bert Schröer of AWB, a Cologne waste disposal company involved in the trial.
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Remember how, in the wake of yet more awful shootings in the US this month, Fox News decided to blame video games rather than, you know, the almost total absence of meaningful gun control? Remember how I said last week that the video-games-cause-violence “argument” was so mendacious and nakedly manipulative that I wasn’t going to dignify it with a response?
Well, here I am, responding, because the supposed link between video games and real-life violence is one of the most persistent myths that I’ve encountered over the course of my career, and it has an interesting (if also infuriating) history.
Many video games have violent content, just as many films and TV series have violent content (and of course many books, as anyone who has endured a Bret Easton Ellis novel will attest). And it makes intuitive sense that the interactivity of games – especially shooting games – might appear more troubling, from the outside, than passive media such as film. (I gotta say, though, that in 25 years of playing video games I have never seen a scene as violent or upsetting as, say, a Quentin Tarantino movie.)
But the idea that exposure to these violent games turns people into killers in real life is comprehensively false – and it deflects attention from the actual drivers of real-world violence, from inequality to access to firearms to online radicalisation. It is a very politically motivated argument, and one that makes me instantly suspicious of the person wielding it. The NRA, for instance, trots it out on the regular. Donald Trump, inciter of actual real-life violent riots, was fond of it too. Why might that be, I wonder?
First, the facts: there is no scientifically credible link between video games and real-life violence. A lot of the studies around this issue are, in a word, bad – small sample sizes, lab conditions that have no relation to how people engage with games in the real world – but the best we have show either no link at all between violent games and violent thoughts or behaviour, or a positive correlation so minuscule as to be meaningless. A review of the science in 2020, which looked at and re-evaluated 28 global studies of video games and violence, found no cumulative harm, no long-term effect, and barely even any short-term effect on aggression in the real world. It concluded that the “long-term impacts of violent games on youth aggression are near zero”.
This seems self-evident: video games have been a part of popular culture for at least 50 years, since Pong, and violent games have existed in some form since Space Invaders, though they’ve gotten more visually realistic over time. If video games were in some way dangerous – if they significantly affected our behaviour, our emotional responses – you would expect to have seen widespread, cross-cultural changes in how we act. That is demonstrably not the case. Indeed, overall, violent crime has been decreasing for more than 20 years, the exact period of time during which games have become ubiquitous. Though it would be unscientific to credit video games with that effect, you would think that if the generations of people who’ve now played Doom or Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto were warped by it, we might be seeing some evidence of that by now.
It is true that some perpetrators of mass murders – such as the Columbine shooters – were fans of video games. But given that the great majority of teenagers are fans of video games, that doesn’t mean much. More often than a fixation on violent media – of all kinds – mass shooters display an obsession with weapons or explosives or real-life killers, an interest in extremist views, social ostracisation. These are not otherwise well-adjusted people suddenly compelled to real-world violence by a game, or a film, or a Marilyn Manson album.
The history of the “video games cause violence” argument goes back even further than video games themselves: it’s an extension of the panic that flares up whenever a new and supposedly morally abject form of youth culture emerges. In the 1940s, when New York’s mayor ordered 2,000 pinball machines to be seized so that he could performatively smash them up, it was arcades; during the satanic panic of the 1980s and beyond, it was metal music. Since the mid to late 90s, it’s been video games, and no amount of studies debunking any link between them and real-world violence seems to make a difference.
So why does this argument keep showing up? In short: because it’s an easy scapegoat that ties into older generations’ instinctive wariness of technology, screen time and youth culture, and it greatly benefits institutions like the NRA and pro-gun politicians to have a scapegoat. Whenever video games are implicated in a violent event, there is usually stunning hypocrisy on display. After the El Paso shooting in 2019, Walmart removed violent video game displays from its stores – but continued to sell actual guns. Fox News, the TV network that platforms Tucker Carlson and the great replacement theory with him, is happy to point out that the perpetrator of a mass shooting played video games, while remaining oddly quiet on the racist ideas that show up in these shooters’ manifestos.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t examine video game violence at all, or question it. Does every game that involves sneaking up on enemies need a gratuitous neck-breaking animation when you succeed in overpowering a guard? Why do games so often resort to violence as the primary method of interaction with a virtual world? Do we really need more violent media – couldn’t we be playing something more interesting than another military shooter? These are valid and interesting questions. But they have nothing to do with real-world violence.
What to play
Back in 1994, video game magazine Edge ended its review of Doom with this infamous line: “If only you could talk to these creatures, then perhaps you could try and make friends with them, form alliances… Now that would be interesting.” Nearly 30 years later, “talk to the monsters” jokes and memes still crop up, even if nobody remembers where it originally came from.
Turns out that reviewer had a point, though, as proved by 2015’s Undertale, probably the most interesting anti-violent video game I’ve played. In this lo-fi role-playing game, you get into fights with plenty of monsters, but instead of battering them into submission you can win them over by talking them down and showing them mercy, which is often the more difficult option. In most games, there’s no question about what you do when a monster turns up in your path: this one makes you interrogate yourself. I interpreted it at the time as social commentary on pacifism and community, and looking back, I don’t think that was too much of an overreach.
Available on: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch Approximate play time: 6-10 hours
What to read
I’m going to start with a book this time: Lost in a Good Game: Why We Play Video Games and What They Can Do For Us, by Pete Etchells. A researcher and lecturer in biological psychology, Etchells’ perspective on video games is both relatable and extremely well-informed. He looks at the evidence (or lack of evidence) behind all the most pervasive beliefs about video games, and in the end he makes the case that most of the effects that they have on individuals and society are actually positive. It’s a reassuring read that I often recommend to worried parents who don’t play games themselves.
Grand Theft Auto V, perhaps the poster child for morally bankrupt video games that supposedly corrupt the youth, has now sold 165 million copies, following its launch on PS5 and Xbox Series X earlier this year. This makes it one of the most popular entertainment products of all time in any medium, and yet strangely, in the nine years since it was released, we have not seen the emergence of roving gangs of teenagers looking to act out their chaotic GTA Online shootouts in real life. Funny that.