Senators grilled a Facebook executive about the company’s apps’ impact on younger users on Thursday, two weeks after an explosive report claimed the company was aware that Facebook-owned Instagram could have a “toxic” effect on teen girls.
The hearing, which features Antigone Davis, Facebook’s global head of safety, is the first of two on how Facebook interacts with its younger users being held by the Senate Commerce Committee. A Facebook whistleblower is expected to testify before the committee next week.
“We now know that Facebook routinely puts profits ahead of kids’ online safety. We know it chooses the growth of its products over the well-being of our children,” Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal said in opening remarks at the hearing. “And we now know it is indefensibly delinquent in acting to protect them.”
“The question that haunts me,” Blumenthal added, “is how can we, or parents, or anyone, trust Facebook?”
Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn echoed Blumenthal in her opening remarks directed at Facebook, demonstrating the bipartisan pressure on this issue.
The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month that Facebook researchers have been studying how Instagram, which it owns, affects its millions of young users for the past three years. According to the findings, the platform can negatively impact mental health and body image, particularly among adolescent girls.
Blumenthal claimed that his office set up an Instagram account for a 13-year-old girl. It was based on some easily accessible accounts of extreme dieting and eating disorders. “We do not trust you with influencing our children,” she said.
He claimed that the Instagram recommendations were “exclusively filled” with accounts that promoted self-harm and eating disorders within a day. (Those accounts, according to Davis, would be in violation of Instagram’s policies, which prohibit content that promotes self-harm.)
Following the publication of the Journal report, Instagram announced that it was exploring new ways to discourage users from focusing on their physical appearance. While Instagram can be a place where people have “negative experiences,” the company also claims that the app gives marginalized people a voice and keeps friends and family connected.
“What’s been lost in this report is that in fact with this research, we’ve found that more teen girls actually find Instagram helpful — teen girls who are suffering from these issues find Instagram helpful than not,” Davis said Thursday. “Now that doesn’t mean that the ones that aren’t, aren’t important to us. In fact, that’s why we do this research.”
Davis, a mother and former teacher, disputed the report’s status as a “bombshell” and refused to commit to releasing the full research report, citing “privacy concerns.” “We’re looking for ways to release more research,” she said.
Instagram appeared to be forced to reconsider its plans to introduce a version of its service for children under the age of 13 as a result of the report and the renewed pressure from lawmakers that followed it. Instagram announced it would put the project on hold just days before the hearing this week.