Senators press Zuckerberg over Facebook's impact on youth mental health

Senators press Zuckerberg over Facebook's impact on youth mental health
© Greg Nash

Top lawmakers on the Senate Commerce Committee’s consumer protection panel are pressing Facebook to release internal research on the impact of its products on youth mental health as the company presses ahead with plans for a platform geared toward children.

Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnFacebook to testify in Senate after report finds Instagram harms mental health House Oversight Democrat presses Facebook for 'failure' to protect users Warren, Daines introduce bill honoring 13 killed in Kabul attack MORE (R-Tenn.) asked Facebook CEO Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - House Democrats plagued by Biden agenda troubles Webb: Big Tech won't change; the tech sector can Hillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — Democrats press FTC to resolve data privacy 'crisis' MORE in a letter Wednesday to share any internal research on the topic, as well as commit to send a senior executive to testify before the lawmakers at a hearing on the topic in September. 

The letter is the latest effort from lawmakers to pressure Facebook over its impact on kids and teens as the company pushes forward with plans to launch an "Instagram for kids" platform for users under the age of 13.

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“As one of the largest platforms for young audiences, Facebook has a profound obligation to ensure its products do not contribute to this crisis,” the senators wrote. 

“We have grave concerns about this apparent effort to ensnare children into social media platforms at earlier and earlier ages,” they added.

The senators said they expect to hold a hearing on the plans for a kids’ Instagram platform to “better educate parents on the risks from social media platforms and to develop legislative solutions to better protect children.” 

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Zuckerberg testified during a House hearing in March that he believed the company had conducted research on the impact of its products on children. Blumenthal and Blackburn asked the CEO to share details on the nature of the research and its findings. 

“We welcome productive collaboration with Sen. Blumenthal and Blackburn to keep young people safe online,” Facebook spokesperson Stephanie Otway said in a statement. 

“For those under 13, the reality is that they’re already online, so we’re creating an experience for them that is age-appropriate, and managed by parents,” she added. 

Otway also noted updates the company launched last week, including defaulting users under 16 into private accounts when they join Instagram. 

But Otway’s statement did not directly address the requests for the company to share any internal research with lawmakers and send an executive to testify in September. Otway declined to share further details at this time. 

Although Facebook has argued an Instagram for kids would deter children from entering false birth dates to access the full site, the plans have been criticized by advocacy groups.

Advocates warn it poses risks about skewing children’s self-image, harvesting their data and feeding the addictive nature of social media apps, among other concerns.