US Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) has criticised Facebook for hiding its knowledge of the harmfulness of its products by choosing ‘growth over children’s mental health.’ After the Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook’s internal research had found Instagram to be ‘toxic for young girls’, Blumenthal’s office was additionally approached by a whistleblower with internal documents showing some of the company’s findings on the harmfulness of its social media platforms.
“Facebook has taken Big Tobacco’s playbook. It has hidden its own research on addiction and the toxic effects of its products. It has attempted to deceive the public and us in Congress about what it knows, and it has weaponized childhood vulnerabilities against children themselves,” Blumenthal said at a Senate hearing on Thursday.
Even though the company itself publicly denied that Instagram is harmful to teens, the senator stressed that Facebook researchers and experts were aware of the real situation and now broad public can also know that ‘Facebook routinely puts profits ahead of kids’ online safety’.
The research papers provided to the senator’s office revealed that more than one-third of teens had little or no control over how Instagram made them feel. Moreover, Facebook researchers also found out that teens ‘have an addict’s narrative about their use’ of the company’s products. Terrible numbers presented the cruel reality – teen users with suicidal thoughts, 13% in the UK and 6% in the US said they could trace those feelings to Instagram.
To study the issue deeper, Blumenthal’s office created a fake Instagram account for a user identified as a 13-year-old girl. According to the senator, within one day of the account following a few other users associated with extreme dieting, she was offered a huge amount of recommendations of accounts promoting eating disorders.
This made Blumenthal and Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee) sent a letter to Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, asking whether the company’s research had ever found that its products can harm children’s mental health. Zuckerberg’s replied they are ‘not aware of a consensus among studies or experts about how much screen time is too much’.
Now, along with Senator Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts), Blumenthal is going to reintroduce a 2020 bill designed to create new protections for Internet users under 16. To prove the need of the bill, Markey mentioned Facebook research showing that 32% of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.
The information about Facebook negative impact on people was previously confirmed by the company’s former president Sean Parker, back in November 2017, when he admitted that the company’s flagship platform and Instagram were designed to exploit ‘a vulnerability in human psychology’. Parker confessed company’s creators realised the addictive nature of their products but ‘did it anyway’ to boost the productivity of the platform.
In addition, citing internal documents, the WSJ found that multiple teams were working on plans to create more products and conduct research around pre-teens as potential users. One of the teams was set up with a three-year goal to develop specific products for the demographic. A presentation included the explored ways to engage children during playdates and noted wariness among parents towards the idea.