Instagram chief gets bipartisan grilling over harm to teens
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle grilled Instagram chief Adam Mosseri Wednesday over steps his platform has taken to protect young users.
The hearing, in front of the Senate Commerce subcommittee on consumer protection, was Mosseri’s first before Congress and showed rare bipartisan agreement on the harms being caused by social media.
“Our nation is in the midst of a teen mental health crisis,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), chair of the panel, said during opening remarks. “Social media didn’t create it, but it certainly fanned the flames.”
The effect of Instagram use on the mental health of adolescents has been a major focus of lawmakers since leaked slides released earlier this year showed internal research suggesting the platform worsened body image issues for one in three teen girl users.
Mosseri defended the platform against those allegations during his testimony, arguing that the platform can be a “positive force” for teens and touting updates aimed at protecting young users. He also called for the creation of an industry body to create standards, a proposal that drew negative reactions from lawmakers that stressed the need for independent oversight.
“I recognize that many in this room have deep reservations about our company,” he told lawmakers. “But I want to assure you that we do have the same goal — we all want teens to be safe online.”
Instagram announced a suite of new features earlier this week to give parents more control of their children’s use of the platform and to more accurately verify the age of users.
Lawmakers criticized those changes as being too little, and crucially too late.
“While I’m sure you know that we fully share the goal of protecting kids and teens online, what we aren’t sure about is how the half measures you’ve introduced are going to get us there,” said Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), the ranking member of the subcommittee.
Mosseri fielded several targeted questions about future transparency from lawmakers frustrated that the public only found out about the internal research about teen reactions via a leak to the press.
Blumenthal pressed the executive to commit to make internal research and algorithms available to outside, independent researchers. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) also asked Mosseri several times to make the data at the heart of that research public.
Mosseri agreed to share data with researchers, but stopped short of supporting a legal requirement to allow independent access to internal data and studies.
The decision earlier this year for Instagram to pause a version of its app for kids also received scrutiny.
Mosseri declined to commit to making that pause permanent, arguing that kids being online is inevitable and that the task of Instagram is to make sure they are as safe as possible.
Several lawmakers pushed back on Mosseri’s statements about the safety of his platform by bringing up fake teen accounts that they have created.
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) described the creation of an account pretending to be a 13-year-old girl that initially was not suggested harmful content but quickly began to see posts promoting body image issues after following a female celebrity that was recommended to the account.
Mosseri argued that that experience is not reflective of most experiences on the platform.
“We absolutely do not want any content that removes eating disorders on the platform, we do our best to remove it… I believe it is roughly five in 10,000 things viewed,” he said.
Mosseri’s hearing is unlikely to be the last on the links between social media and teen mental health.
Blumenthal told reporters that future hearings may include executives and former employees from Meta, the newly formed parent company of Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp.
Multiple lawmakers, notably Blackburn, suggested that the issue of child mental health could add impetus to the push to develop a national data privacy standard.
Blackburn also told reporters that she is looking into legislation to modify Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which provides liability protections to online platforms for content posted by third parties, on the issue.
Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) told The Hill that he is making progress on securing bipartisan support for two of his bills, one to expand and update the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act and another to ban manipulative online techniques aimed at young people, the Kids Internet Design and Safety (KIDS) Act.
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