Lawmakers Investigating Instagram After Report It Makes Teens Suicidal

Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the House Financial Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Oct. 23, 2019.

Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the House Financial Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Oct. 23, 2019.
Photo: Susan Walsh (AP)

Democratic lawmakers are calling on Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to abandon his plans to launch an “Instagram for Kids,” citing internal research by the company declaring the platform has inflamed mental-health problems, including suicidal ideation, among its teenage users; most notably, young girls.

The demand comes as top lawmakers on the Senate Commerce Committee announced plans to investigate the company with the help of a “Facebook whistleblower.”

“Children and teens are uniquely vulnerable populations online, and these findings paint a clear and devastating picture of Instagram as an app that poses significant threats to young people’s wellbeing,” the lawmakers said.

The letter is signed by Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, and Representatives Kathy Castor and Lori Trahan of Florida and Massachusetts, respectively.

The Wall Street Journal revealed Tuesday that researchers inside Instagram had studied the impact of the photo-sharing app on the lives of its millions of young users. The researchers concluded that a sizable percentage of teenage girls believed the app was responsible for mental health issues related to their self-image.

“We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,” the researchers wrote in a slide presentation posted to Facebook’s internal message board and obtained by the Journal.

According to one slide, 32 percent of teen girls said the app made them feel worse about their bodies. Of those who’d experienced suicidal thoughts, “13% of British users and 6% of American users traced the desire to kill themselves to Instagram,” the Journal reported, citing another presentation.

Twenty-two million teens in the United States use Instagram on a daily basis, the paper said.

Facebook, which claims to welcome collaboration with Congress, has refused to make the research available to lawmakers, saying its data is proprietary. Reached by Gizmodo, a Facebook spokesperson said the company would not comment on the letter.

Members of the Senate Commerce Committee said Facebook has proven to be incapable of holding itself accountable, saying it’s “growth-at-all-costs” approach places profits above “the health and lives of children and teens.”

“When given the opportunity to come clean to us about their knowledge of Instagram’s impact on young users, Facebook provided evasive answers that were misleading and covered up clear evidence of significant harm,” the lawmakers said.

Markey, Castor, and Trahan said Wednesday that the once-secret documents underscore “Facebook’s responsibility to fundamentally change its approach to engaging with children and teens online.” The company could begin to do so, they said, by abandoning its plans to launch an Instagram app directly targeting children.

“As the internet—and social media specifically—becomes increasingly engrained in children and teens’ lives, we are deeply concerned that your company continues to fail in its obligation to protect young users and has yet to commit to halt its plans to launch new platforms targeting children and teens,” the lawmaker’s letter to Zuckerberg said.

BuzzFeed News revealed in March that Facebook was planning to build a version of Instagram intended for children under the age of 13. Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, confirmed the company was exploring the idea at the time.

Facebook painted the concept as a “solution” to the challenges of age-verification across its platforms; a platform with stronger controls and transparency for parents. Critics say the trillion-dollar business is motivated purely by profit and a desire to hook young kids on its products at an earlier age so they can be monetized as users down the road—much in the way YouTube Kids currently drives young users to its 13+ platform.

Nearly all of Facebook’s profits stem from advertisements that target its users based on an analysis of their online habits.

The lawmakers’ letter additionally asked specific questions of Zuckerberg, such as whether he’d personally reviewed the research into psychological harms caused by Instagram. Zuckerberg was also asked to disclose any future plans at his company to target children and to reveal how long Facebook had been studying the impact of his products on teens’ mental health.

“In light of this new evidence, we strongly urge you to cease all efforts to launch any new platforms for children or teens,” the lawmakers said.

You can read the full letter from Markey’s office embedded below.


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