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Facebook blasted by senators for following ‘Big Tobacco’s playbook’ to hook young users

September 30, 2021, 6:49 PM UTC

Lawmakers chastised Facebook on Thursday over concerns that Instagram is harming the mental health of young Americans, amplifying long-standing worries about the social network.

In a contentious hearing on Capitol Hill, Republicans and Democrats criticized Facebook over a wide range of concerns that its photo-sharing service negatively influences teen users to the point where some develop eating disorders or even suicidal thoughts. 

The hearing, held by a Senate Commerce subcommittee, followed a Wall Street Journal series that detailed, among other things, how Facebook’s own research has found that Instagram can cause harm to teenagers. In one slide reported by the publication, Facebook’s researchers said that “we make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls.”

“Facebook has asked us to trust it,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, said Thursday. “Why should we? It’s clear that Facebook has done nothing to earn that trust—not from us, not from parents, not from the public. In truth, Facebook has taken Big Tobacco’s playbook.”

A Facebook whistleblower, who will testify before the Senate next week, has provided the committee with thousands of pages of additional documents, senators said.

Since the Journal’s reports broke, Facebook has continually pushed back by saying the studies were taken out of context, though it did pause its plans to introduce an Instagram for kids. On Wednesday evening, the company released two of its internal studies—adding annotations that criticized some headlines that its own employees had authored on the slides as being “myopic” and called into question many of those employees’ findings. “This is not bombshell research,” Antigone Davis, Facebook’s global head of safety, said Thursday during the hearing.

Davis, nonetheless, told lawmakers Thursday that Facebook is considering a handful of changes to try to “nudge” users who are “rabbit holing” into potentially harmful content toward more “uplifting or inspired content” to try to break the cycle. Facebook is also exploring a tool it’s calling “take a break” that Davis said would encourage users to step away from the app.

“Right now, the research shows that eight out of 10 teens say that they have a positive to neutral experience” on Instagram, Davis said. “Our goal is for it to be 10 out of 10. And for it to be positive.”

For some time, legislators have been looking to further crack down on tech companies that fail to protect their youngest users. It is a shift that, just a few weeks ago, led to a rush of child-safety-enhancing announcements from the likes of Google-owned YouTube and TikTok, which is often viewed as Gen Z’s preferred social network.

Facebook and Instagram said around the same time that they would stop letting users younger than 18 be targeted by ads based on their “interests.” But many lawmakers feel that’s insufficient, particularly with Facebook’s now-paused plan to create a service for the under-13-year-old crowd. Said Sen. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican from Tennessee, “This seems to be a recurring theme with his company. Do everything and anything to mold the world into your own image for your own profit without any regard that is going to be done because your focus is on your pocketbook.”

Sen. Maria Cantwell, the Washington Democrat who heads the Senate Commerce Committee, called an update to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA, “essential” at Thursday’s hearing. First passed in 1998, the law is designed to put more control in the hands of parents over what information their children see online.

More than two decades later, though, many lawmakers are now pushing to beef up the online protections of children in the social media age.

For instance, senators Blumenthal and Ed Markey, who coauthored COPPA, reintroduced legislation Thursday intended to ban certain features like autoplay, push alerts, and “like” buttons for users who are younger than 16. Markey pressed Davis to commit to banning such features, to which the executive said Facebook is trying to understand what is and is not “age appropriate.” Markey was not satisfied. The Massachusetts Democrat replied by saying that if Facebook needs to do more research on it, it “should fire all the people who you paid to do the research up until now, because this is pretty obvious.”

“Instagram is that first childhood cigarette meant to get teens hooked early, exploiting the peer pressure of popularity, and ultimately, endangering their health,” Markey said. “The last thing we should allow Facebook to do is push young kids to use Instagram.”

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