Senators skewer Facebook exec over Instagram’s impact on kids

Senators slammed Facebook in a contentious hearing with its safety chief on Thursday, blasting the company over leaked research showing that Instagram can make body issues worse for many teen girls.

“While Facebook publicly denies that Facebook is harmful for teens, privately Facebook experts and researchers have been ringing the alarm for years,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation called the hearing after a series of damning reports in the Wall Street Journal showed that Facebook’s internal research found that Instagram makes “body image issues worse for one in three teen girls.” Blumenthal said his office had received thousands of pages of documents that built on the Journal’s reporting from a whistleblower who is set to testify next week. 

Facebook’s global head of safety Antigone Davis scrambled to downplay the Journal reports and convince senators that the company protects kids. 

“We strongly disagree with how this reporting characterized our work,” said Davis. “This research is not a bombshell.”

The Journal’s reporting showed that an internal Instagram study found 13 percent of British teens and 6 percent of American teens with a desire to kill themselves traced that desire to Instagram.

Antigone Davis
Facebook global head of safety Antigone Davis sought to downplay the Wall Street Journal’s reports and convince senators that the company protects kids. 

Under questioning about that statistic by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Davis said she “disagrees with the characterization of the research” in the Journal, saying the research did not establish a “causal” relationship and that the real figure was closer to 0.5 percent. 

Cruz also asked if Facebook changed its policies based on the suicide study, but Davis would not provide a definitive answer. She also refused to confirm the Journal’s reporting that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was aware of the research. 

Hours before Davis’ more than two-hour-long testimony on Thursday, Facebook published what it said were two research slide decks that the Wall Street Journal used in its reporting. The company added annotations to each slide that sometimes downplay and dispute its own research. 

Sen. Richard Blumenthal
“While Facebook publicly denies that Facebook is harmful for teens, privately Facebook experts and researchers have been ringing the alarm for years,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal.

Shortly afterward, the Journal published a more comprehensive series of slides than those that were released by Facebook, including a slideshow called “Teen Girls Body Image and Social Comparison on Instagram.” 

That report included a study showing that 66 percent of teen girls and 40 percent of teen boys on Instagram “experience negative social comparison.” When teen girls felt bad about their bodies, 32 percent said Instagram made them feel worse, according to the slides shared by the Journal. 

Davis said Facebook was trying to release more of its Instagram studies but did not provide a concrete commitment or timeline. 

A teen on a phone
Leaked research showed that Instagram can make body issues worse for many teen girls.
Photothek via Getty Images

She spoke to the senators — who darted in and out of the hearing in order to vote on a government funding bill — through a video call in front of a granite backdrop with flowers and books. 

When Cruz asked Davis where she was calling from, Davis said she was in a conference room in Washington, DC. 

“Why aren’t you in this hearing room right now?” asked Cruz. 

“This is where I was told to come. There are COVID protocols,” replied Davis, who used to work for the district attorney of Maryland.

“Facebook is in the process of hiding,” Cruz shot back. “You’re not physically here even though you’re blocks away from us.” 

Ted Cruz
Sen. Ted Cruz blasted Davis for appearing remotely.

Facebook sending Davis rather than higher-ranking executives like Zuckerberg or Instagram chief Adam Mosseri shows the company is trying to distance itself from the Journal’s damning stories, some observers say. Zuckerberg’s only public response to the articles has been a flippant joke about a surfboard, while Mosseri attended the Met Gala the same week that the Journal’s initial stories were being published.

On Monday, Mosseri went on the “Today” show to talk about Instagram’s decision to “pause” its plans to launch a version of the photo sharing app for kids

Mosseri argued that “building ‘Instagram Kids’ is the right thing to do,” pointing to under-13 versions of YouTube and TikTok as evidence that children’s versions of apps are accepted in the tech world.

Instagram logo on a phone
Instagram recently “paused” plans for Instagram Kids.
SOPA Images/LightRocket via Gett

While Mosseri skipped out on Thursday’s hearing, Davis nonetheless faced questioning about Instagram Kids, including from Sens. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.). 

Asked how or when Facebook will decide when to un-“pause” its plans for Instagram Kids, Davis refused to provide a concrete answer and said a decision would come after consultation with lawmakers, parents, experts and users. She denied that the ultimate decision will come down to the whims of Zuckerberg. 

Markey pushed Davis on whether she believes that features including follower and “like” counts on Instagram can quantify popularity and hurt kids’ self-esteem. Davis replied that the company was still researching these issues.

Ed Markey
Sen. Ed Markey compared Instagram to cigarettes.

“If you need to do more research on this, you should fire everyone you paid to do research,” replied Markey. “IG stands for Instagram, but it also stands for Insta-greed.”

“If Facebook has taught us anything, it’s that self-regulation is not an option,” added Markey, comparing Facebook to big tobacco companies that pushed deadly products on children and teens. “Instagram is that first childhood cigarette.”

Another Facebook hearing in front of the Senate Commerce Committee is set for Tuesday morning, when the unidentified whistleblower who provided documents to Blumenthal will testify, according to the senator.