Lawmakers Grill Facebook Over Leaked Internal Research on Instagram’s Harmful Impact on Teens

Facebook is one of the big tech companies who are a part of the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism. (Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)
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By Katabella Roberts

Facebook was heavily criticized by members of Congress on Thursday during a hearing examining how the social network giant handled internal research relating to its Instagram platform and how it can be harmful to the mental health of teenagers.

Antigone Davis, Facebook’s global head of safety, was grilled for over three hours by lawmakers who accused Facebook—which owns Instagram—of concealing its findings showing that the Instagram app is harmful to significant numbers of teenage girls.

The hearing was convened by the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security after internal documents regarding Facebook’s findings were disclosed to the Wall Street Journal by a whistleblower at the company.

The documents showed that Facebook found that Instagram makes body image issues worse for a substantial number of teen girls and is blamed by teens for increases in anxiety and depression. In some cases, the app led to body-image problems such as eating disorders, as well as suicidal thoughts, the research showed.

During Thursday’s hearing, lawmakers scrutinized Facebook for its lack of transparency, accusing it of covering up the data and demanding it make changes, even drawing comparisons to the tobacco industry’s coverups of cigarettes’ harmful effects.

“We’re here today because Facebook has shown us once again that it is incapable of holding itself accountable,” Committee Chair Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said in his opening remarks. “This month, a whistleblower approached my office to provide information about Facebook and Instagram. Thanks to documents provided by that whistleblower, as well as extensive public reporting by The Wall Street Journal and others, we now have deep insight into Facebook’s relentless campaign to recruit and exploit young users.”

“We now know that Facebook routinely puts profits ahead of kids’ online safety,” he added. “We know it chooses the growth of its products over the well-being of our children, and we now know that it is in defensively delinquent in acting to protect them.”

Davis denied Blumenthal’s claims while defending Instagram’s efforts to protect young people using its platform and condemning the way the research had been shown in news outlets.

She also acknowledged that questions have been raised about the company’s internal research, noting that it was conducted to “better understand young people’s experiences on Instagram.”

“We strongly disagree with how this reporting characterized our work, so we want to be clear about what that research shows, and what it does not show,” Davis stated in written testimony. “We undertook this work to inform internal conversations about teens’ most negative perceptions of Instagram,” she added. “It did not measure causal relationships between Instagram and real-world issues.”

“We care deeply about the safety and security of the people on our platform,” Davis said. “We take the issue very seriously. … We have put in place multiple protections to create safe and age-appropriate experiences for people between the ages of 13 and 17.”

Amid growing scrutiny, Instagram has paused its plans to create an Instagram product for children under 13 after some 44 state attorneys general from both major parties urged it to scrap the plans, noting the latest internal findings regarding Instagram’s impact on teenagers’ mental health.

Adam Mosseri, head of Instagram, wrote in a Sept. 27 blog post that the company still believes building the version for children “is the right thing to do,” but it’s “pausing the work” to consult with parents, experts, and policymakers.

The pause “will give us time to work with parents, experts, policymakers and regulators, to listen to their concerns, and to demonstrate the value and importance of this project for younger teens online today,” Mosseri wrote.

Zachary Stieber and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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