US lawmakers question Facebook on Instagram policies for children

Senators grill social media giant after Wall Street Journal reported it was aware Instagram harmed teens’ mental health.

The Wall Street Journal newspaper published articles citing a leaked internal Facebook investigation about how the company knew its photo-sharing platform Instagram caused some teenage girls in particular to feel bad about their self-image [File: Thomas White/Reuters]

United States lawmakers have heaped criticism on Facebook Inc on the company’s plans to protect children who use its social media platforms, after a leaked internal investigation showed the social media giant was aware of how its Instagram app harmed the mental health of teenagers.

The Senate consumer protection subcommittee hearing on Thursday came after the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) newspaper published articles about how Facebook knew its photo-sharing platform caused some teenagers, girls in particular, to feel bad about their self-image.

Amid mounting questions, Facebook earlier this week paused plans to develop Instagram Kids, saying it wanted “time to work with parents, experts, policymakers and regulators to listen to their concerns”.

At Thursday’s hearing, Facebook’s Head of Global Security, Antigone Davis, disputed the way the WSJ described what the research showed. She also said the company was working to release additional internal studies in an effort to be more transparent about its findings.

Facebook’s Antigone Davis is seen on a screen as she testifies before a Senate subcommittee on Thursday [Tom Brenner/Pool via Reuters]

“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.”

But Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal was unconvinced, describing the internal report’s findings as “a bombshell”.

“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,” he said during the hearing.

Democratic Senator Edward Markey added: “IG stands for Instagram, but it also stands for Insta-greed.”

‘Very damning’

Comparisons to the tobacco industry’s coverups of cigarettes’ harmful effects abounded in a session that united US senators of both major parties in criticism of Facebook and Instagram, a platform that Facebook has owned since 2012 and is valued at $100bn.

Al Jazeera’s Patty Culhane, reporting from Washington, DC, said the congressional hearings could “possibly lead to new regulations on not just Instagram and Facebook, but all social media, on how they market to children”.

On Monday, Instagram head Adam Mosseri also disputed the WSJ’s findings.

“Recent reporting from the WSJ on our research into teens’ experiences on Instagram has raised a lot of questions for people. To be clear, I don’t agree with how the Journal has reported on our research,” he said in a statement.

But Danny Weiss, chief Advocacy officer at Common Sense Media, a non-profit group that focuses on improving technology’s impact on children, said the internal investigation report is indeed “a bombshell”.

“The findings the WSJ came out with through a whistleblower are very damning of Facebook and the way that it operates, and the attitude that Facebook has towards children and teens – a special group of people who need extra special protections,” Weiss told Al Jazeera.

He said parents need to get better educated about what their children are doing on social media, and technology companies need to do better at minimising the reach of toxic content on their platforms. Lastly, Weiss said, “there’s clearly a need for governments to step in and hold tech companies accountable”.

A second hearing is planned for Tuesday and will feature a Facebook whistleblower.

The whistleblower is expected to reveal their identity on Sunday in a recorded interview for 60 Minutes, a US news programme. In a preview, the show described the woman as a former Facebook employee who left with tens of thousands of pages of research.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies