Congress Questions Facebook Executive on Adverse Effects of Instagram on Children | Facebook

Antigone Davis, Facebook’s global head of safety, faced an audience grid in the U.S. Congress on Thursday during a hearing examining the impacts of the company’s products on children.

Thursday’s Senate Subcommittee on Commerce, Science and Transportation hearing comes after a series of Wall Street Journal reports based on internal Facebook leaks, including an article revealing research showing the harmful effects of Instagram on children’s mental health.

Senators took a hard line against the company, hammering the research and pointing to Facebook’s attempts to obscure it ahead of the hearing.

“Facebook knows the disruptive consequences of Instagram’s design and algorithms on the young people of our society, but it has consistently prioritized its own rapid growth over basic safety for our children,” said Richard Blumenthal, chairman of the sub -committee, in its opening speech. declaration.

“This research is a bomb,” said Blumenthal. “This is powerful, compelling and compelling proof that Facebook knows about the harmful effects of its site on children, and that it has hidden these facts and findings.”

Blumenthal noted that her office had conducted its own research on Instagram, masquerading as a 13-year-old girl and following accounts associated with eating disorders to see what Instagram would recommend. He discovered that the platform had sent the account further down the rabbit hole of damaging content.

“Our research is now showing, in real time, that Instagram’s recommendations tie into a person’s insecurities, a young woman’s vulnerability, her body and pull them into dark places that glorify the disorder. diet and self-injury, ”said Blumenthal.

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

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

Facebook’s head of research last week refuted the WSJ’s revelations, saying it was “just not accurate” that the company’s research showed Instagram was toxic to teenage girls. But the company has put on hiatus a product it was developing for users under the age of 13, called Instagram Kids.

“Although we are convinced of the need to develop this experience, we have decided to put this project on hold,” wrote Adam Mosseri, head of Instagram, in a blog post.

Hours before the hearing, Facebook released two research slideshows that it said was the “main focus” of the WSJ’s “distortion” of its work. The Journal responded by releasing the slides in full, which paint a grim picture of what Facebook knew about the negative impact of its products on teenage girls.

Davis at the hearing declined to say how long Facebook would pause plans for Instagram Kids or rebuffed arguments that it would be abandoned altogether.

“We know that young people under the age of 12 are already online on apps that are not designed for them,” she said. “We want to give their parents the supervision tools and information they need to manage the time they spend. “

Davis has faced repeated questions about the data the company collects on young users and whether it sees these users as an area for growth. She reiterated that children under 13 were not allowed on Facebook and argued that the number of teens who, in research, had logged “suicidal thoughts” to Instagram was lower than the numbers reported by the Newspaper.

Several senators compared Facebook to big tobacco. Blumenthal said Facebook “has taken the big book of tobacco play.”

“He hid his own research on drug addiction and the toxic effects of his products,” he said. “He has tried to deceive the public and us in Congress about what he knows, and he has armed the vulnerabilities of childhood against children themselves, he has chosen growth over child mental health and greed rather than preventing the suffering of children. “

Like fat tobacco, the tech giant “offers a product that is harmful to young people,” Markey argued, adding that “Instagram is that first childhood cigarette meant to get teenagers hooked early on.”

Senators also highlighted the need to update the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act 1998, 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 trade committee.

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

Facebook can also expect more requests to publish research data. “You’ve picked out some of the research that you think is helping you shoot right now,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas, while demanding that the company commit to publishing its full research on the links between Instagram and youth suicide.

Davis declined to commit to posting more internal research on Instagram and any other Facebook research, pointing to privacy concerns and the number of internal decision makers within the company to consult.

Thursday’s hearing marks the latest congressional investigation in a few tumultuous years for Facebook, which has been forced to send executives to the Hill repeatedly to testify on topics such as disinformation and antitrust issues.

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

Child online safety advocates have called the Instagram for Kids break a victory, but are urging the company to abandon plans altogether.

“Don’t get me wrong, they’re still going to try to build it,” said Jim Steyer, founder and CEO of Common Sense, a nonprofit children’s media watchdog. “The only thing they care about is hooking kids up when they’re most vulnerable, keeping them on the platform, and having access to as much of their personal data as possible. “

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

Reuters contributed to this report

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