Senators blame Instagram, vow legislation banning online targeting of children

'Self-regulation is not an option,' Markey tells Facebook executive

Antigone Davis, director of global safety for Facebook, testified remotely Thursday as senators from both parties warned her about targeting children. (Tom Brenner/Pool via AFP via Getty Images)
Antigone Davis, director of global safety for Facebook, testified remotely Thursday as senators from both parties warned her about targeting children. (Tom Brenner/Pool via AFP via Getty Images)
Posted September 30, 2021 at 2:40pm

A chorus of lawmakers from both parties vowed Thursday to push for legislation banning online companies from targeting children after slamming a top Facebook executive for pursuing projects intended to attract users under 10 years old.

“We now know that Facebook routinely puts profits ahead of its online safety,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., chair of the Senate Commerce Committee’s subpanel on consumer protection, product safety, and data security. “We know it chooses the growth of its products over the well-being of our children.”

His comments came during a hearing held days after the head of Instagram, a unit of Facebook, said the company was pausing the pursuit of a version of the photo and video app aimed at children as young as 8 years old.

The company's decision follows an explosive report in The Wall Street Journal in mid-September that detailed findings from Facebook’s internal research that showed Instagram users, particularly teen girls, suffered from mental health breakdowns, feeling ashamed of their bodies and suicidal thoughts.

Facebook sought to suppress the research findings, which were leaked by an internal whistleblower. The company has criticized the Journal report but not disputed its substance. The Senate panel plans to hear from the whistleblower next week.

Antigone Davis, director of global safety for Facebook, told lawmakers Thursday that Facebook and Instagram try to keep kids younger than 13 off the platforms, but added the company’s Messenger Kids app allows access to users ages 13 and younger.

Davis repeatedly asserted Facebook did not try to suppress internal findings showing Instagram harms teen girls, but when asked by lawmakers if the company would fully publicize the findings, she declined to say the report would be released.

Facebook did release a heavily redacted and annotated version of the findings Wednesday ahead of the Senate hearing.

While Davis tried to downplay the findings, Blumenthal said “this research is a bombshell . . . it’s powerful, gripping evidence that Facebook knows the harmful effects of its site on children."

Blumenthal's office set up an Instagram account pretending to be a 13-year-old girl, he said. Soon after, the account started receiving content about eating disorders and body image, he added.

The internal research showed that “aspects of Instagram exacerbate each other to create a perfect storm,” Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., said citing Facebook’s report.

“That perfect storm manifests itself in the minds of teenagers in the form of intense social pressure, addiction, body image issues, eating disorders, anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts,” she said.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., chairwoman of the full committee, said the hearing and revelations about Facebook’s findings highlight the need to update the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. The law restricts online data collection and marketing to kids under the age of 13.

“Self-regulation is not an option,” said Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass.

Markey said he was reintroducing legislation with Blumenthal that would ban features that tally the number of followers each user has, autoplay features on videos, as well as marketing and influencer promotions on apps aimed at young kids.