Facebook Grilled By US Senators Over Harm To Children Research

A senior Facebook executive has this week faced tough questioning from a US Senate subcommittee over reports it was aware of how its Instagram app harmed the mental health of teenagers.

This week the head of Instagram confirmed it was ‘pausing’ the development of the “Instagram Kids” app, after the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported on leaked internal research which suggested that Instagram had a harmful effect on teenagers, particularly teen girls.

The WSJ alleged Facebook was aware of this and made minimal efforts to address the issue.

Facebook head of research Pratiti Raychoudhury rejected the WSJ claim and called this allegation “simply not accurate”.

Senate questioning

But on Thursday, US Senators on the Senate consumer protection subcommittee questioned Facebook on its plans to better protect young users on its apps.

Facing the subcommittee was Antigone Davis, Facebook’s global head of safety.

She disputed the committee and WSJ’s conclusions of the research documents throughout the hearing, and said the company was working to release additional internal studies in an effort to be more transparent about its findings, Reuters reported.

“This research is a bombshell,” Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, was quoted as saying during the hearing. “It is powerful, gripping, riveting evidence that Facebook knows of the harmful effects of its site on children, and that it has concealed those facts and findings.”

“IG stands for Instagram, but it also stands for Insta-greed,” Senator Edward Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts reportedly added.

Tough questioning

The senators pressed Facebook’s Davis on a number of topics, including what identifiable data Facebook collects on users under the age of 13; to what extent the company views young users as a growth area; and to confirm whether it knew that Instagram led some children to consider suicide.

Davis reiterated that kids under 13 were not allowed on Facebook, adding 0.5 percent of teens in the company’s research connected their “suicidal ideation” to Instagram, lower than the figures the Journal had reported.

Last month Facebook said it would require Instagram users to share their date of birth, in an effort to improve child safety.

But US Senators were not convinced and continued to lay into the social networking giant.

“You’ve cherry-picked part of the research that you think helps your spin right now,” Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas, reportedly said.

He reportedly demanded that Facebook commit to releasing its full research on the links between Instagram and youth suicide.

Facebook whistleblower

A second hearing is planned for Tuesday and will feature a Facebook whistleblower, Reuters reported.

The former Facebook employee is expected to reveal her identity on Sunday in TV interview, who reportedly left the firm with thousands of pages of research documents.

Facebook’s Davis said on Thursday that Facebook would not retaliate against the whistleblower for sharing confidential documents with the senators.

The WSJ on Wednesday released more Facebook research, that revealed that major social media stars including Kim Kardashian, Justin Bieber and Charli D’Amelio are among celebrities whose Instagram followers experience more negative feelings about their self-image.

The Facebook researchers reportedly found that seeing more celebrity content in the Instagram feed was associated with more negative comparison.

Almost half of the content people see on Instagram comes from celebrities, the research showed.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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