Senators to grill Instagram chief over platform's effect on children

Lawmakers on the Senate Commerce’s subcommittee on consumer protection are set to grill Instagram chief Adam Mosseri Wednesday in a hearing focused on the impacts of social media use on teenagers and children.

The issue has become a rare point of bipartisan consensus, with both sides of the aisle hammering online platforms for what critics say are their contributions to depression, anxiety and body image issues among young Americans.

Despite that agreement on the problem, solutions in the form of legislation or new regulations have not gained meaningful momentum yet.

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Instagram has become a particular point of focus in discussions on adolescent social media since leaked documents from its parent company, Meta, showed internal knowledge of harm to young users’ mental health.

One slideshow, first reported on by The Wall Street Journal, presented results from a survey in which 1 in 3 teenage girls reported that Instagram made their body image issues worse.

This finding, as well as claims made by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, ignited a firestorm on Capitol Hill.

Meta initially dispatched head of global safety Antigone Davis to field questions from lawmakers at a hearing earlier this year, but eventually agreed to let Mosseri testify.

Wednesday will mark the first congressional appearance for Mosseri, who was named head of Instagram in 2018 after the photo-sharing app’s co-founders left Facebook.

The former Facebook product designer previewed his strategy for the hearing Tuesday morning with an announcement of a new slate of features aimed at protecting young users on the platform.

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Starting Tuesday, Instagram will send teens in the U.S., United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, New Zealand and Australia a notification to turn on “Take a Break,” a feature that alerts users if they have been scrolling the app for too long.

Teens will also have the option to bulk delete posts, comments and likes in one place.

Next year, the platform will provide new tools for parents to monitor their children’s social media usage and add new restrictions on content it recommends to teens.

The rollout just a day before the hearing is likely to limit any goodwill generated by the new features.

“This is a hollow ‘product announcement’ in the dead of night that will do little to substantively make their products safer for kids and teens,” said Sen. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnSenate Republicans press federal authorities for information on Texas synagogue hostage-taker Sunday shows preview: Democrats' struggle for voting rights bill comes to a head CNN legal analyst knocks GOP senator over remark on Biden nominee MORE (R-Tenn.), ranking member of the subdebte. “But my colleagues and I see right through what they are doing.”

Mosseri may also argue that Meta conducting the analysis reported by The Wall Street Journal shows the company’s desire to fix the problem and that the results were more complex than headlines made them out to be.

The company released the full slideshow after the Journal’s report, pointing out that the same survey found teen girls say Instagram helped them feel better about many well-being issues.

Experts in child psychology have cast doubts on both the findings of Meta’s survey and the conclusions lawmakers have drawn from it.

The analysis, as University of California Irvine psychological science professor Candice Odgers has pointed out, asked respondents about the impacts they think social media use has on them. That kind of self-reporting leaves space for external factors, like what people have heard about social media, to inform answers and is not very useful for establishing causal links.

“We don’t go around and ask ‘do you think vaccines are effective’ and then conclude that that’s the effectiveness of vaccines,” Odgers told The Hill. 

Odgers was part of a team that published a study last year surveying more than 2,000 adolescents, finding mobile phone ownership was not associated with indicators of well-being like test scores, psychological distress, behavioral issues or physical health.

“At the population level there was little evidence that digital technology access and use is negatively associated with young adolescents’ well-being,” the study concluded.

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Those kind of results do not necessarily mean that social media is not important to study, and experts agree more quality research needs to be conducted in the space.

Future research should focus on the demographics of young people who are using social media and how usage affects them to tease out more useful results, Michael Robb, the senior director of research at Common Sense Media, told The Hill.

“Social media can be especially helpful for kids who are marginalized, who may not have access to people in their communities who are like them,” he added. “Some of the nuance definitely gets lost, but I don’t want to detract from the fact that I think social media companies actually do have much more of a role to play in trying to stop or address these harms.”

Experts agree both Congress and social media companies will be important for reaching a better understanding of the interplay between social media use and mental health.

A group of more than a hundred academics sent a letter to Meta CEO Mark ZuckerbergMark ZuckerbergFacebook winding down cryptocurrency effort: report Can our nation afford higher interest rates with the current national debt? Hillicon Valley — States probe the tech giants MORE earlier this week calling on the company to be more transparent about internal research and contribute to outside studies.

Meta’s track record on sharing data with third parties is checkered — the company has previously cut off researcher access to services and provided faulty data for studies — meaning government oversight is likely needed.

“I don’t think you can trust companies to do it internally,” Odgers said. “The incentives are just not aligned for this to be a priority. And so it’s going to have to be a mix of regulation, pressure.”

Beyond pushing for increased transparency, lawmakers are also likely to debate legislation aimed at expanding the Children and Teens’ Online Privacy Protection Act and a bill to ban manipulative online techniques aimed at young people, the Kids Internet Design and Safety Act.