MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (WBOY) – A West Virginia University researcher shared her findings that show the negative impact social media could be having on West Virginia children. 

Dana Coester is a WVU College Media Professor whose research dives into how the negative sides of social media and the internet can sometimes outweigh its benefits.

Her team conducted “The Instagram Experiment” where they created an account for a fictional West Virginia 13-year-old to find what content they are seeing. The experiment gave researchers some unexpected data when they started counting the toxic content that naturally appeared on the page’s feed that children consume.

The Instagram Experiment (WBOY Image)

“We thought we would see it accumulate slowly. However, the count was full of targeted toxic content within just a few days,” Coester said.

The content can include violent, pornographic, misogynistic, homophobic, antisemitic and racist ideas, which can influence and manipulate children. 

“This content is often seen as jokes and memes and is combined with benign and even wholesome content which only works to further desensitize youth to traumatic content,” Coester said.  

She categorizes manipulative social media users into different “actor” categories: 

  • Trolls and other non-state bad actors – “Post inflammatory and outrageous content for the LOLZ (laughs), other attention-seeking behaviors.” 
  • State actors – “Coordinated actions by other countries designed to amplify polarization, seed social disfunction, mistrust, and to disseminate destabilizing propaganda.” 
  • Non-organized actors – “Individuals who engage with and distribute extremist or adjacent content but are not formally or knowingly associated with organized groups.” 
  • Organized extremist groups – “Includes unknown homegrown splinter cells, diffuse regional/international networks.” 
  • Arms Dealers – “Not ideologically motivated but who create, distribute and amplify extremist and extremist adjacent content for profit.” 
  • Algorithms – “Complex, proprietary machine learning software that platforms apply to systematically personalize content with high monetization/ engagement potential.” 

Coester said parents often don’t even know what content their children are seeing and the tactics that these “actors” are taking to manipulate others are too complex for parents and children to combat alone. 

She’s working toward the solution at the source.

“We try and bring our research to key decision makers at platforms and at the policy level to truly address this problem at the scale that it exists,” she said.

Coester and her team will be releasing a documentary on this topic called “Raised by Wolves” about how social media is shaping children today, but as of now, there is no release date.