Oct 1, 2021 - Technology

Senators grill Facebook over Instagram's impact on teens

Facebook's Antigone Davis testifies on a video conferencing screen

Photo: Patrick Semansky/AP/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Facebook took volleys of criticism from senators Tuesday at a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing on its research into Instagram's impact on young girls.

Driving the news: Several senators compared Facebook to Big Tobacco during the hearing, and pressed the company on what its internal research revealed and how it had responded.

  • "Facebook has taken Big Tobacco's playbook," consumer protection subcommittee chairman Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said. "It has hidden its own research on addiction and the toxic effects of its products. It has attempted to deceive the public and us in Congress about what it knows."
  • Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who said he is reintroducing legislation that would ban features for young users like autoplay and push alerts, described Instagram as "that first childhood cigarette, meant to get teens hooked early, exploiting the peer pressure of popularity and ultimately endangering their health."

By the numbers: Blumenthal highlighted stats from what he described as "previously undisclosed" Facebook research, including:

  • A Dec. 2020 survey of over 50,000 Facebook users finding that teens, women of all ages and people in Western countries experienced higher levels of body image concerns and problems with appearance comparison on Instagram.
  • An April 2021 report that found a quarter of teen girls felt discouraged about their own life and worse about themselves often or very often after using Instagram.

The other side: Representing Facebook at the hearing, global head of safety Antigone Davis argued that the Wall Street Journal's first report of the Instagram research mischaracterized it, saying that most teen girls suffering from these issues find Instagram helpful. 

  • "I want to be clear that this research is not a bombshell," Davis said. "It's not causal research."
  • Blumenthal disagreed: "This research is a bombshell. It is powerful, gripping riveting evidence that Facebook knows the harmful effects of its site on children, and that it has concealed those facts and findings."
  • Davis said the company is "looking for ways to release more research."

Of note: Blumenthal said Facebook documents describe so-called Finsta accounts — "Fake Instagram" accounts users set up to avoid parental scrutiny and communicate freely among friends — as a "unique value proposition" and a way to boost its monthly active user metric.

  • "When kids deceive their parents, you make money from the secret accounts," Blumenthal said.

The intrigue: Blumenthal's office set up an Instagram account posing as a 13-year-old girl and followed accounts associated with eating disorders and extreme dieting. Within a day, Blumenthal, said the recommended accounts were exclusively promoting self-harm and eating disorders.

Davis said Facebook's work to respond to the research is ongoing, and one possibility is finding ways to "jump in" if people are dwelling on certain types of content and point them to content that "inspires and uplifts them."

Go deeper