House Republicans Say Facebook Lied About Risks to Teens

New report shows social media giant knew Instagram encourages eating disorders, depression

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg / Getty Images
September 14, 2021

House Republicans are pointing to a Wall Street Journal report to argue that Facebook has for years deceived them about the negative effects its platforms have on teenage users.

The social media giant has conducted multiple studies that show that Instagram encouraged eating disorders and depression in teenage girls, according to documents obtained by the Journal. But when Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee in March requested Facebook's internal research on how social media affect children, the company punted. In a letter to the committee, Facebook said conducting research on the question is difficult and that experts disagree on "how much screen time is 'too much.'"

"Facebook refused to comply with our request and we now know why," committee ranking member Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R., Wash.) told the Washington Free Beacon. "This also leaves us wondering what else they are hiding. We will continue to demand transparency from Facebook and other Big Tech companies, especially as it relates to the harm their products have on our children."

A spokesman for another committee Republican, Colorado representative Ken Buck, had similarly harsh words for social media platforms. Big Tech companies have "almost unchecked power" and answer "only to themselves," the spokesman said. He called on Congress to pass antitrust bills to "bring these dark and duplicitous monopolists to heel."

Facebook has repeatedly attempted to deceive stakeholders who inquire after its operations. Other documents obtained by the Journal show the company lied to its formally independent Oversight Board. Facebook told the board that a system designed to protect high-profile users from being censored was used in "a small number of decisions." In fact, Facebook exempts at least 5.8 million users from the content moderation guidelines it imposes on most people. "We are not actually doing what we say we do publicly," a 2019 internal review found.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has long touted the value of "connection" and told Congress in March that "the research that we've seen is that using social apps to connect with other people can have positive mental-health benefits." Zuckerberg by then had already seen the internal reports that link Instagram use to eating disorders and depression.

A whistleblower gave some of the Facebook documents to members of Congress. House Republicans are considering several bills that would require companies to disclose potential mental health impacts of their sites and direct the National Institutes of Health to consider warning labels for certain sites.

Republicans were not the only lawmakers angered by the Journal report. Democratic senator Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) tweeted that he was "appalled and alarmed" by Facebook's deception.

Facebook internal documents note that its flagship platform, Instagram, and WhatsApp cause a "ratchet effect," by which spending more time on one encourages users to spend more time on the others. The Federal Trade Commission is pursuing a legal case against Facebook, saying the web of platforms makes Facebook dangerously powerful in the social media industry.