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Facebook Confronts Senators Furious About Instagram’s Risks

Senator Richard Blumenthal said Facebook has “chosen growth over children’s mental health and well-being, greed over preventing the suffering of children.”

(Bloomberg) -- Facebook Inc.’s head of global safety faced tough questions from lawmakers who accused the company of prioritizing profit and growth over the health of its youngest users. 

Senators at a hearing Thursday seized on Facebook’s internal research about the mental-health effects of its platforms, arguing the social media giant can’t be trusted to act in the best interest of children and teens. Senator Richard Blumenthal said Facebook has “chosen growth over children’s mental health and well-being, greed over preventing the suffering of children.”

“Facebook has shown us once again that it’s incapable of holding itself accountable,” Blumenthal said. 

Facebook’s Antigone Davis said the company uses its own studies and works with outside experts to develop tools to keep young users safe on its platforms, give parents more safety options and prevent people younger than 13 from lying about their age to create accounts. 

“It’s why we conduct this research: to make our platforms better, to minimize the bad and maximize the good, and to proactively identify where we can improve,” Davis said in her prepared remarks. “Facebook is committed to building better products for young people, and to doing everything we can to protect their privacy, safety, and well-being on our platforms.”

The hearing follows reporting by the Wall Street Journal that Facebook understood the negative effects Instagram has on young users, including anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts, and yet downplayed the research. Almost a third of young teen girls with body image issues told Facebook that scrolling through Instagram made those issues worse, according to documents reviewed by the newspaper. 

The Journal also detailed how Facebook is aware that millions of celebrities get special treatment for questionable content, human traffickers actively use the platform, and an algorithm change fueled increasingly divisive posts. The Journal series has reignited anger in Washington at the social media giant, although lawmakers are still far from passing proposed legislation aimed at the platform.

“You’ve lost the trust and we do not trust you” Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn, the panel’s ranking Republican, told Davis.

Instagram’s head of research, Pratiti Raychoudhury, said in a blog post Sunday that the study quoted by the Journal was a small sample of 40 teens, and most of them reported feeling better in other categories like loneliness and anxiety after using Instagram. Raychoudhury’s post also detailed actions taken to make Instagram a healthier platform for young people, like adding resources for those struggling with eating disorders and removing some content related to suicide. 

The company released two slide decks late Wednesday outlining Instagram’s mixed impact on the way young people feel about themselves. The Wall Street Journal later released additional documents that informed the newspaper’s reporting. 

Read More: Facebook Defends Instagram’s Mental Health Impact Before Hearing

As part of its response to the fallout from the Journal’s reporting, Facebook announced Monday that it will pause work on a version of Instagram for children. Still, Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, said in a blog post that building a version of Instagram designed for children ages 10-12 is still “the right thing to do” to give parents more control. 

Davis said from June to August, Facebook removed 600,000 accounts belonging to children younger than 13. She also said the company is looking for ways to release more of the company’s internal studies and to give external researchers access to Facebook data.

Blumenthal told reporters Wednesday that a pause is “totally insufficient.”  

“It’s a mockery of what they should be doing, which is to say, stop exploiting children and cease abusive practices that put profits over children’s safety,” he said.

The whistle-blower who shared Facebook documents with the Wall Street Journal will testify publicly before the same subcommittee next week. 

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