Facebook faces questions over teen safety after whistleblower report says Instagram is harmful

Political adversaries in Congress are united in outrage against Facebook for privately compiling information that its Instagram photo-sharing service appears to grievously harm some teens, especially girls, while publicly downplaying the popular platform’s negative impact.

Facebook was summoned to testify Thursday in front of a Senate Commerce Committee panel digging into Instagram’s impact on young users.

"We now know, while Facebook publicly denies that Instagram is deeply harmful for teens, privately Facebook researchers and experts have been ringing the alarms for years," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., the chair of the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security, who was leading the hearing. "And we now know that it is indefensibly delinquent in acting to protect them. It is failing to hold itself accountable. And the question that haunts me is ‘How can we or parents or anyone trust Facebook?'" 

For some of the Instagram-devoted teens, the peer pressure generated by the visually focused app led to mental-health and body-image problems, and in some cases, eating disorders and suicidal thoughts. It was Facebook’s own researchers who alerted the social network giant’s executives to Instagram’s destructive potential.

Those revelations in a report by The Wall Street Journal, based on internal research leaked by a whistleblower at Facebook, have set off a wave of anger from lawmakers, critics of Big Tech, child-development experts and parents.

Blumenthal said Facebook hid the research and failed to act to protect kids.

"After years of decline, starting in 2007, suicide rates for young people have begun to skyrocket. The suicide rate for 10-14-year-olds has doubled. For young girls it has quadrupled," said Blumenthal. "Instagram didn’t create this crisis, but from the documents provided by the whistleblower, clearly Facebook’s own researchers describe Instagram itself as a perfect storm."

Mounting public pressure over the revelations have prompted Facebook to put on hold its work on a kids’ version of Instagram, which the company says is meant mainly for tweens aged 10 to 12. But it’s just a pause.

Facebook’s head of global safety, Antigone Davis, testified in front of the Congressional panel, saying she disagreed with how the recent reporting characterized Facebook's work. She said many teens report positive experiences on Instagram, pointing to a survey of teens dealing with serious issues such as loneliness, anxiety, and eating disorders.

"On 11 of the 12 issues, teen girls who said they struggled with those issues were more likely to say that Instagram was affirmatively helping them, not making it worse," said Davis.  

She said Facebook works to prevent children under 13 from gaining access to platforms that aren’t suitable for them. The company is also developing features to protect young people on its platforms, using research and consultations with outside experts to make the users’ experience positive.

She said the goal is to keep young people safe on the platforms and ensure that those who aren’t old enough to use them do not.

While Blumenthal compared Facebook to big tobacco companies for exploiting kids' vulnerability and hiding studies about how harmful Instagram is, internet safety activist and CEO of connectsafely.org, Larry Magid, said that comparison isn't accurate. 

"I think it’s more like comparing them to chocolate. Chocolate can be harmful if you eat too much of it, but delicious and not hurt you if you eat it in moderation. The same is true with social media," said Magid. 

Magid said while some teens might feel Instagram is damaging to their self-esteem, other teens are thriving on it.

He said Facebook does have a responsibility to make the platform safe, but it can't be only its responsibility.

"It takes a village. Of course its up to parents to moderate how their kids are using social media," said Magid. He said there should also be timers to limit screen time, and mental health resources.

Although he thinks Congress should also regulate social media, he doesn't think that will happen as a result of Thursday's hearing. 

"Congress people will posture and make statements and make threats, but at the end of the day I don’t see an appetite to regulating social media in ways that will actually be helpful," said Magid. 

During the hearing, senators agreed that the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, passed in the late 90's, needs to be updated. But even with bipartisan support, Congress has not been able to pass new laws protecting teens online.

The committee also plans to take testimony next week from a Facebook whistleblower, possibly the person who leaked the Instagram research documents to the Journal.