Congress grills Facebook exec on Instagram’s harmful effect on children

Senators highlighted research revealed in the Wall Street Journal showing how the photo app could affect girls’ body image and self-esteem

Antigone Davis, Facebook’s global head of safety, faced a grilling before the US Congress on Thursday in a hearing examining the impacts of the company’s products on children.

Thursday’s hearing of the Senate commerce, science and transportation subcommittee comes after a series of Wall Street Journal reports based on internal Facebook leaks, including a story that revealed research showing the harmful effects of Instagram on childhood mental health.

Senators took a hard line against the company, hammering into the research and highlighting Facebook’s attempts to obfuscate it leading up to the hearing.

“Facebook knows the disruptive consequences that Instagram’s design and algorithms are having on young people in our society, but it has routinely prioritized its own rapid growth over basic safety for our children,” said Richard Blumenthal, the chair of the subcommittee, in his opening statement.

“This research is a bombshell,” Blumenthal said. “It is powerful, gripping, riveting evidence that Facebook knows of the harmful effects of its site on children, and that it has concealed those facts and findings.”

Blumenthal noted that his office conducted its own research into Instagram, posing as a 13-year-old girl and following accounts associated with eating disorders to see what Instagram would recommend. It found the platform sent the account further into the rabbit hole of harmful content.

“Our research shows right now, in real time, Instagram’s recommendations latch on to a person’s insecurities, a young woman’s vulnerability, about their bodies and drag them into dark places that glorify eating disorders and self-harm,” said Blumenthal.

“IG stands for Instagram, but it also stands for Insta-greed,” said Senator Edward Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts.

The research that sparked the hearing, revealed in the Wall Street Journal report, was commissioned by Instagram, which is a subsidiary of Facebook, and showed that the photo app could affect girls’ mental health on issues such as body image and self-esteem.

Facebook’s head of research last week issued a rebuttal to the WSJ revelations, arguing that it was “simply not accurate” that the company’s research showed Instagram was toxic for teenage girls. But the company did pause a product it had been developing for users under the age of 13 called Instagram Kids.

“While we stand by the need to develop this experience, we’ve decided to pause this project,” Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, wrote in a blogpost.

Hours before the hearing, Facebook released two slide decks of research that it said formed the “primary focus” of the WSJ’s “mischaracterisation” of its work. The Journal responded by publishing the full scope of the slides, which painted a bleak picture of just how much Facebook knew about the negative impact of its products on teenage girls.

Davis in the hearing declined to say how long Facebook would pause plans for Instagram Kids or and pushed back against arguments that it be scrapped completely.

“We know young people under the age of 12 are already online on apps that aren’t designed for them,” she said. “We want to get their parents the supervisory tools and insights that they need to manage the amount of time that they’re spending.”

Davis faced repeated questions on what data the company collects on young users and whether it views those users as a growth area. She reiterated that kids under 13 were not allowed on Facebook, and argued that the number of teens that, in the research, had connected “suicidal ideation” to Instagram was lower than the figures the Journal had reported.

Several senators compared Facebook to big tobacco. Blumenthal stated Facebook “has taken big tobacco’s playbook”.

“It has hidden its own research on addiction, and the toxic effects of its products,” he said. “It has attempted to deceive the public and us in Congress about what it knows, and it has weaponized childhood vulnerabilities against children themselves, it’s chosen growth over children’s mental health and greed over preventing the suffering of children.”

Like big tobacco, the tech giant is “pushing a harmful product to the young”, argued Markey, adding that, “Instagram is that first childhood cigarette meant to get teens hooked early.”

Senators also highlighted the need to update the 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or Coppa – the federal law that protects children and their data online.

“The safeguards in place are not enough,” said Maria Cantwell, chair of the commerce committee.

Thursday’s hearing makes clear that the revelations about Instagram and mental health have had an impact on Facebook. Although Davis said that Instagram will continue its discussions with parents and policymakers about an Instagram product for kids, the hearing suggested that any fresh Facebook product aimed at the under-13 market will face a barrage of political opposition.

Facebook can also expect more demands to release research data. “You’ve cherry-picked part of the research that you think helps your spin right now,” said Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas, while demanding the company commit to releasing its full research on the links between Instagram and youth suicide.

Davis refused to commit to releasing more internal Instagram research and any other research by Facebook, pointing at privacy issues as and the number of internal decision-makers within the company to be consulted.

Thursday’s hearing marks the latest congressional inquiry in a tumultuous few years for Facebook, which has been forced to send executives to testify on the Hill a number of times about topics including misinformation and antitrust concerns.

Next week, lawmakers are expected to hear from the whistleblower who provided the internal reports to the Journal.

Children online safety advocates have called the pause on Instagram for Kids a victory, but are encouraging the company to scrap plans entirely.

“Make no mistake that they are still going to try to build it,” said Jim Steyer, founder and CEO of non-profit children’s media watchdog Common Sense. “The only thing they care about is hooking kids when they are most vulnerable, keeping them on the platform and getting access to as much of their personal data as possible.”

“This is their business model that generates billions of dollars and they are not going to jeopardize that,” he added.

Reuters contributed to this report


Kari Paul and Dan Milmo

The GuardianTramp

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