Facebook Senate Hearing. PHOTO: Cybercrime Magazine.

Does Facebook Put Profits Ahead Of Kids’ Online Safety?

Senate chair claims social media giant hides “toxic effects on its products” like tobacco companies

Charlie Osborne

Washington, D.C. – Sep. 30, 2021

Facebook has been forced to defend itself in a Senate hearing over claims the firm is ignoring the mental health risks of social media to teenage users in its quest for profit and growth.

The hearing, taking place on Thursday, was prompted by a series of investigations conducted by the Wall Street Journal and was convened by U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, chair of the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety.

Ahead of the session, titled “Protecting Kids Online: Facebook, Instagram, and Mental Health Harms,” the Senate Commerce Committee’s panel reviewed documents provided by a whistleblower.

Blumenthal branded Facebook as “incapable of holding itself accountable” and a company that “routinely puts profits ahead of kids’ online safety… and is indefensible delinquent in acting to protect them.”

The committee chairman also claimed that Facebook has taken a leaf out of the tobacco industry’s playbook and hides the “toxic effects on its products” from the general public.

Acting as a witness at the session, Antigone Davis, director, Global Head of Safety at Facebook, said the company is constantly and “proactively identifying where we can improve.”

Facebook acquired Instagram in 2012 for $1 billion. The media-sharing platform has become popular with minors as well as adults, and has even led to business models wholly conducted via the platform by “influencers.”

The “Facebook Files” explore allegedly leaked internal documents, presentations, and research, with topics ranging from how the company manages misinformation and connectivity to how Facebook deals with high-profile users that may be breaking its terms of service.

According to the series, Facebook has allegedly failed to fix “flaws” in its social networks, and one area, in particular, is of concern — how Instagram can be “harmful” to younger users, especially teenage girls.

At the hearing, Blumenthal dubbed the research a “bombshell.”

The WSJ also claimed that Facebook documents show a team was formed to study preteens and the long-term business opportunities they represent. A three-year goal was reportedly set to create products for this age bracket, and the idea of engaging children during playdates has allegedly been considered.

In response, Facebook’s Nick Clegg, VP of Global Affairs, branded the set of articles as containing “deliberate mischaracterizations” of the firm’s activities which confer “egregiously false motives to Facebook’s leadership and employees.”

Davis contributed to this perspective at the hearing, saying that “we [Facebook] strongly disagree with how this reporting characterized our work.”

This week, the company also fought against the WSJ’s report on an internal research project, conducted by Instagram, which found that some teen girls said that when they already felt bad about their bodies, “Instagram made them feel worse.”

Facebook says that teens report both positive and negative experiences on social media, and while acknowledging body image is a factor, the company added, “the research shows one in three of those teenage girls who told us they were experiencing body image issues reported that using Instagram made them feel worse — not one in three of all teenage girls.”

A handful of slides relating to the research, together with new annotations by Facebook, can be accessed here (1, 2) (.PDF).

When asked whether or not the research revealed Facebook is putting profit ahead of health, Davis commented:

“I think what’s been lost in this report is that in fact, with this research, we’ve found more teenage girls find Instagram helpful than not. That doesn’t mean that the ones that aren’t, aren’t important to us.”

Instagram has announced a delay this week to “Instagram Kids,” a version of the platform designed for users under 13 years of age.

The team said that while the pause will signal to critics that an under 13-version of Instagram is not a good idea, Instagram insists that as children are already online — and are often able to bypass age verification checks — developing “age-appropriate experiences” is now a necessity.

At the hearing, Senator Edward Markey and Blumenthal reintroduced legislation, the Kids Internet Design and Safety (KIDS) Act, to stop vendors from implementing manipulative marketing and damaging website design features to young people, including push alerts, autoplay settings, like buttons, and follower counts.

When asked if she supported the legislation, Davis said, “We’d be happy to talk to you and work with you on that.”

Blumenthal commented that other hearings will take place in the future and it is not just Facebook and Instagram that are under scrutiny.

“Other social media companies will appear in the coming weeks,” Blumenthal said. “We will hold them to that promise.”

Charlie Osborne is a journalist covering security for ZDNet. Her work also appears on TechRepublic, Cybercrime Magazine, and other media outlets. 

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