WASHINGTON – Senators on Thursday fired a barrage of criticism of a Facebook executive for the social networking giant’s handling of internal research into how its Instagram photo-sharing platform could harm teenagers.
Legislators accused Facebook of hiding the negative findings about Instagram and called for the company to make changes.
During a testimony before a Senate trade subcommittee, Antigone Davis, Facebook’s chief global security officer, defended Instagram’s efforts to protect young people who use its platform. She denied the way a recent newspaper article describes what the research shows.
“We care a lot about the safety of the people on our platform,” said Davis. “We take this issue very seriously. … We have implemented several protective measures to create safe and age-appropriate experiences for people between 13 and 17 years of age. “
Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., The chairman of the subcommittee, was not convinced.
“I don’t see how one can deny that Instagram is exploiting young users for its own gain,” he said to Davis.
The panel examines how Facebook is using information from its own researchers that may indicate potential harm to some of its young users, especially girls, while it has publicly downplayed the negative effects. For some of the Instagram-loving teenagers, the peer pressure created by the visually focused app led to mental health and body image issues and, in some cases, eating disorders and suicidal thoughts, the research found.
The revelations in a Wall Street Journal report based on internal research by a whistleblower on Facebook sparked a wave of anger among lawmakers, big tech critics, child development experts and parents.
Comparisons were made with the tobacco industry’s cover-up of the harmful effects of cigarettes at a meeting in which senators from both parties came together to criticize the huge social network and Instagram, the photo-sharing juggernaut worth around 100 billion US dollars who has owned Facebook since 2012.
Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., Said, “Instagram is the first cigarette in childhood that is said to be addictive to teens at an early age.
The episode is quickly turning into a scandal for Facebook as the Cambridge Analytica debacle approaches. The revelations in 2018 that the data mining company had collected details from up to 87 million Facebook users without their permission similarly sparked a Facebook public offense and congressional hearings.
“It is perfectly clear that Facebook is viewing the events of the past two weeks only as a public relations issue, and that the issues raised by the leaked research have not led to a soul search or commitment to change,” said Josh Golin, children’s executive director -Online advertising group fair play. The group, formerly known as the Ad-Free Childhood Campaign, doesn’t take money from Facebook or companies, unlike the nonprofits that Facebook uses for expert advice on its products.
Facebook’s public reaction to the outcry over Instagram has been to stop working on a children’s version of Instagram, which the company claims is primarily aimed at tweens aged 10-12. On Monday, Instagram boss Adam Mosseri said in a blog post that the company will use his time off “to work with parents, experts and policy makers to demonstrate the value and need for this product”.
Back in July, Facebook announced that it would be working with parents, experts and policy makers when it introduced security measures for young people on its main platform, Instagram. In fact, the company worked with experts and other consultants on another product for kids – its Messenger Kids app, which launched in late 2017.
Pressed by senators, Davis didn’t want to say how long the break would be. “I don’t have a specific date, but I have an obligation,” Facebook executives will discuss with parents, policy makers and experts, she said. “We want to do this right.”
Blumenthal and Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, the senior Republican on the panel, also plan to seek testimony next week from a Facebook whistleblower believed to have passed the Instagram research papers to the Journal. An interview with the whistleblower will be broadcast on the CBS program “60 Minutes” on Sunday.
Davis, a retired middle school teacher and assistant in the Maryland Attorney General, insisted that research into the impact Instagram has on young people is “not a bomb.”
“This research is a bomb,” countered Blumenthal. “The evidence is strong, compelling and compelling that Facebook knows about the harmful effects of its website on children and has withheld those facts and insights.”
The research papers published by the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday: https://s.wsj.net/public/resources/documents/teen-girls-body-image-and-social-comparison-on-instagram.pdf
Ortutay reported from Oakland, California. Associate press writer Amanda Seitz in Columbus, Ohio contributed to this report.
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