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Facebook draws scrutiny over Instagram’s negative mental health impact on teens

U.S. lawmakers are pressing Facebook over the potential negative impact of its products on teens after a bombshell report detailed the company’s internal research on the effect Instagram has on teens’ mental health.

Two senators are launching a bipartisan probe into Facebook, and a group of House Democrats doubled down on calls for the platform to abandon controversial plans to launch an Instagram for kids following the report published by The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday.

“It is clear that Facebook is incapable of holding itself accountable. The Wall Street Journal’s reporting reveals Facebook’s leadership to be focused on a growth-at-all-costs mindset that valued profits over the health and lives of children and teens,” Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said in a joint statement.

Blumenthal and Blackburn, the top members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation’s consumer protection subcommittee, said they are in touch with a Facebook whistleblower and will use “every resource at our disposal to investigate what Facebook knew and when they knew it.” 

The senators said they’ll seek further documents and pursue witness testimony. 

“The Wall Street Journal’s blockbuster reporting may only be the tip of the iceberg,” they said.

Instagram’s head of public policy, Karina Newton, defended the platform’s policies and its response to the research, publishing a blog post Tuesday saying the company is committed to understanding issues young people face and uses such research to help users experiencing those issues.

The Journal report detailed information from internal Instagram documents about research on how teen users’ mental health was impacted by the popular video and photo-sharing platform.

As part of an 18-month investigation that ran until this spring, researchers conducted a “teen mental health deep dive” and concluded that “social comparison is worse on Instagram,” the Journal reported. 

Internal research from March 2020 stated that the tendency to share the best moments and look perfect on Instagram can push teens toward eating disorders and depression, the newspaper reported. The research also reportedly warned that Instagram’s Explore page — which displays photos and videos curated by the platform’s algorithm — can push users into harmful content. 

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Reps. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) and Lori Trahan (D-Mass.) reissued a call for Facebook to abandon its plans to launch an Instagram for users under age 13, after the Journal revealed the research about the negative impacts the platform had on teens.

“As the internet—and social media specifically—becomes increasingly engrained in children and teens’ lives, we are deeply concerned that your company continues to fail in its obligation to protect young users and has yet to commit to halt its plans to launch new platforms targeting children and teens,” they wrote in a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Wednesday. 

“The recently uncovered evidence published in the Wall Street Journal underscores Facebook’s responsibility to fundamentally change its approach to engaging with children and teens online. That starts with Facebook abandoning its plans to launch a new version of Instagram for kids.”

The Democrats previously called for Facebook to abandon its plan in May, after they said the company failed to make meaningful commitments to protecting kids online in response to their April query. 

According to the Journal’s report, the research has been reviewed by top Facebook executives and was cited in a 2020 presentation given to Zuckerberg.

Despite the internal research, Facebook at the time publicly defended its product against accusations of its harmful impact, especially on young users. 

Blumenthal and Blackburn in August called for the company to release its internal research, but in a response to the senators the company did not include its own studies. 

Blumenthal told the Journal that Facebook’s answers “were so evasive” that they raise questions about what Facebook “must be hiding.” 

The social media giant is defending its product in light of the Journal’s reporting, as well. 

In Newton’s blog post Tuesday, she said Instagram strives to “make sure people feel good about the experience they have on Instagram” and she said the company is using the results of its internal research to respond to change the platform “for the better.” 

“Issues like negative social comparison and anxiety exist in the world, so they’re going to exist on social media too. That doesn’t change the fact that we take these findings seriously, and we set up a specific effort to respond to this research and change Instagram for the better,” Newton wrote. 

Advocacy groups echoed calls from Capitol Hill for Facebook to be forthcoming about the research. 

Jim Steyer, founder of Common Sense Media, called for Facebook to release its research, stop plans for an Instagram for kids and “tell the truth” to Congress.

Facebook has known for yrs that Instagram has directly caused mental health issues for its teens. Yet, they lied to the public & continue to put profits over the health of their users. We are demanding that #MarkZuckerberg & @mosseri be held accountable! — Jim Steyer (@jimsteyer) September 14, 2021

Fairplay Executive Director Josh Golin called it a “watershed moment” and urged Congress to take action. 

“We must hold Facebook accountable for the harm it has already done to teens and stop the company from going after even younger children. Congress should demand that Facebook immediately release its research, and insist that the company cannot go ahead with Instagram Youth until a thorough congressional investigation has been conducted,” Golin said in a statement. 

This story was first published in The Hill,

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