Senators Slam Facebook for Adverse Effect on Teens

Reports show Facebook execs knew Instagram contributes to depression, suicide

Antigone Davis, Director, Global Head of Safety, Facebook testifies virtually during a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Data Security hearing. (Photo by Tom Brenner-Pool/Getty Images)
September 30, 2021

A bipartisan group of senators tore into Facebook Thursday in the wake of news reports that the company is aware of its adverse effect on teenage users.

Members of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee accused Facebook executives of misleading lawmakers about the risk Instagram poses to children. Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook knows its photo-sharing platform contributes to depression and suicidal ideation in teen users. Facebook global head of safety Antigone Davis told senators the Journal report was "misleading."

Congress has scrutinized social media companies for censoring content and promoting misinformation. Facebook in particular has come under fire for manipulating its algorithms to suppress conservative content. And leaked documents reveal Facebook lied about maintaining a special "cross-check" list that exempts certain high-profile figures from its terms of service.

Davis repeatedly denied that Facebook and Instagram could harm users. Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) asked Davis whether she agreed with the claim that 13 percent of users in Britain and 6 percent of users in America blamed Instagram for their suicidal thoughts. Davis responded that "the research is not causal research."

Sen. Ed Markey (D., Mass.) compared Facebook to Big Tobacco and Instagram to "that first childhood cigarette." Davis disagreed that any Facebook products were addictive. "That’s not how we build our products," she said.

But internal documents obtained by the Journal contradict her claims. One report based on interviews with children found: Teens "have an addicts’ narrative about their use [of Instagram] ... . They wish they could spend less time caring about it, but they can’t help themselves."

It also calls into question statements from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who sent a letter to Congress that stated Facebook was "not aware of a consensus among studies or experts about how much screen time is 'too much.'"

Davis also avoided answering whether it collected information on children under the age of 13 without the consent of their parents, saying only that Facebook has a policy against allowing children on the platform. Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri had said the company removed more than 600,000 underage users from the platform over the past three months.

Senators also slammed the company for failing to make internal research publicly available. Davis said the company was trying to make information more available to researchers. Facebook recently banned accounts of independent researchers studying the spread of misinformation on the platform.

Cruz questioned why Davis for testifying over Zoom from her office "just blocks away" in Washington, D.C. Senators said they will continue investigating Facebook’s role in harm to children, and the whistleblower who leaked the documents will meet with Sens. Marsha Blackburn (R., Tenn.) and Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.) on Tuesday.

Blumenthal at one point seemed unsure of how Instagram works, asking Davis whether Facebook would commit to ending "Finsta." Finsta is slang used to refer to "fake Instagram," not one of the platform’s features.