Facebook executive grilled by lawmakers over impact on children’s mental health


Facebook owns Instagram, a social media app popular with teens.

Angela Lang / CNET

U.S. lawmakers lobbied Facebook on Thursday over the negative effects its services could have on young people, especially teenagers, as concern mounts over what the social network knows about its impact on users.

The Senate hearing, titled Protecting Kids Online: Facebook, Instagram, and Mental Health Harms, follows a series of articles in the Wall Street Journal about the social network’s awareness of the damage its platforms have caused and its efforts to minimize publicly this damage. One of the stories reported that internal research from Instagram, owned by Facebook, shows that the photo-sharing app specifically harms teenage mental health, especially when it comes to body image.

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“Facebook has shown us once again that it is incapable of taking responsibility”, Senator Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut Democrat who chairs the subcommittee, said Thursday. “We know that she prefers the growth of her products to the well-being of our children.”

Facebook’s global chief security officer Antigone Davis represented the company at the hearing. She told senators she “strongly disagreed” with the Journal’s characterization of the company’s research, noting that her internal studies also showed the positive impact the app can have on teens. Wednesday night, Facebook released some of the research publicly and said he planned to look at ways to publish more information.

The audience, at times stormy, is another example of the intensification of surveillance of the world’s largest social network. American lawmakers from both political parties demanded more answers from tech platforms, especially social networks like Facebook, about the impact they have on young users. Blumenthal said Thursday’s hearing is intended to help lawmakers draft legislation that will prompt social networks like Facebook to take action.

Senator Marsha Blackburn, a Republican from Tennessee, said Facebook had lost confidence and lawmakers would hold the social network accountable. On several occasions during the hearing, lawmakers likened Instagram to Big Tobacco, attracting teens to social media early on by exploiting their desire to be popular online.

“IG stands for Instagram but also Instagreed,” said Senator Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts. He also compared Instagram to Big Tobacco, calling it the “first childhood cigarette” that makes kids addicted to it.

At one point, Facebook’s Davis took issue with the importance of corporate research at the center of the Journal’s reports, which was also a frequent point of reference for Senators.

“I want to be clear that this research is not a bombshell,” Davis said. “This is not causal research.”

Blumenthal pushed back, calling the research “powerful, gripping and fascinating evidence” that Facebook knew of its platforms’ harms on children. He said his office created an Instagram account that identified its owner as a 13-year-old girl, adding that the account was recommended content on eating disorders and self-harm.

The Connecticut senator inspired a brief flurry on Twitter when he asked Davis if Facebook would get rid of finstas, private Instagram accounts often maintained by teenagers in order to escape parental supervision.

“Will you commit to ending the finsta?” Blumenthal asked Davis, who replied that finstas are not official Facebook products.

The exchange sparked a wave of jokes on Twitter, which the senator joined by tweeting the “How are you, comrades?” even with actor Steve Buscemi. The meme is often used as a response to people trying to enter a digital community that they are not a part of.

Instagram announced on Monday that it would halt work on a children’s version of its app. Davis said the company is working on the project to give parents more control over their children’s social media accounts.

“We recognize how important it is to get it right and we have heard your concerns, which is why we have announced that we are suspending the project to take more time,” she said. Davis added that Facebook is exploring more tools that will “push” users towards more “uplifting content” or to take a break if they spend too much time on the platform.

Thursday’s hearing is one of many the subcommittee has scheduled. Lawmakers are also looking for answers on other social media. On October 5, a Facebook whistleblower is scheduled to testify before U.S. lawmakers. The whistleblower, who has not been identified, will be interviewed in 60 Minutes on October 3.

Andrew Morse of CNET contributed to this report.

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