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Science News

Why We Need Social Media Data — And How to Get It

July 3, 2024

Watch the Recording

Recently, the Child Mind Institute convened Breaking Barriers: Public Policy and Researcher Access to Data as part of our webinar series on Technology and Youth Mental Health. This initiative includes conversations with researchers, policymakers, and industry leaders, who provide different perspectives on how to leverage tech to improve mental health outcomes for children and adolescents — in part by gaining access to real world, or “ecological,” data like what tech companies collect on users.

Breaking Barriers featured Kate Blocker, PhD, director of research at Children and Screens, and Brandon Silverman, a Knight policy fellow at George Washington University and co-founder of the social analytics tool CrowdTangle (which was acquired by Facebook), in conversation with the Child Mind Institute’s Yuki Kotani, MBA. The group discussed the potential of tech company data to open new research pathways, the current state of policy on data transparency in the United States and Europe, and the practical considerations of opening the floodgates to huge amounts of data in a rapidly changing industry.

Blocker touched on the innovative but limited ways researchers have been trying to fill in the gaps while they work to gain access to data from platforms like Facebook or X. Self-reports are subjective, she said, while “data mining only uses what is available in public spaces” and misses private experiences. “What is most striking is that we know this data is available, and it’s just inaccessible,” she said. “The tech companies have been collecting and studying this data for decades. It’s at a level of granularity and richness that most researchers could only dream of having access to.”

How will researchers gain access? “There is a lot of regulatory interest around the world in data access,” Silverman said. The European Digital Services Act will soon have a mechanism for access or sharing of data from large online platforms with independent, vetted researchers.

But noting the glacial pace of policy development, Silverman urges nimbleness in the study of the fast-paced tech industry. Researchers should not attempt to get all available data, since most organizations would be inundated by the sheer volume of data. “We need to be strategic and thoughtful and smart about what datasets we actually want,” Silverman said. “And we have to have a fast turnaround. The half-life of how meaningful this research is on platforms that are changing constantly is not the same as the normal half-life for most academic research.”

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