Senators say Facebook uses ‘Big Tobacco’ tactics to hook kids

Facebook’s global head of safety defended the company against accusations it harms children’s mental health in a Senate hearing Thursday, pushing back against claims that the social media giant exploits young users for profit.

The hearing before the Senate subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Data Security marked the first congressional testimony by a Facebook executive since a recent Wall Street Journal investigation found the company was aware its products harmed underage users. The paper cited internal Facebook research showing the company’s products made body image issues worse for a third of teenage girls and prompted suicidal thoughts in 6% of all teenage users.

“We now know that Facebook routinely puts profits ahead of kids’ online safety,” subcommittee chair Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, said in his opening remarks.

Blumenthal accused Facebook of using the tobacco industry’s playbook, saying the company “attempted to deceive the public and us in Congress about what it knows, and it has weaponized childhood vulnerabilities against children themselves.”

“It’s chosen growth over children’s mental health and well-being, greed over preventing the suffering of children,” he added.

Antigone Davis, Facebook’s head of global safety, defended the research, which Facebook released in an annotated version on Wednesday. The slide decks include titles such as “We make body image issues worse for 1 in 3 teen girls” and show that a significant percentage of underage users were being exposed to negative experiences on Facebook and Instagram.

Challenging the Wall Street Journal’s findings, Davis said Facebook and Instagram users report that social media helped them with stressful issues such as loneliness, body-image concerns and anxiety.

“On 11 of the 12 issues, teen girls who said they struggled with those issues … said Instagram was affirmatively helping them, not making it worse,” Davis said.

She also said Facebook’s products were a “lifeline” in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, when schools were closed and most in-person socializing was impossible.

Davis said that the research did not apply to all children and teens using Facebook and Instagram, but only those who had previously reported going through hard experiences. 

“We recognize how important it is to get this right, we have heard your concerns,” Davis said.

“That first childhood cigarette”

Questions about the effects of social media on children prompted Facebook last week to suspend its plans to develop a version of Instagram aimed at kids under 13. But despite repeated questions from lawmakers, Davis would not say how long that pause will last or who at the company will decide when to relaunch the project.

“What we intend to do at this point in time is to step back, talk with more parents, to engage with more policymakers like yourself, and to engage with more experts,” Davis said.

Ed Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, urged Facebook to scrap the Instagram Kids altogether, calling it worse than a high school popularity contest and as addictive as tobacco.

“Instagram is that first childhood cigarette meant to get teens hooked, really exploiting the peer pressure of popularity, and ultimately endangering their health,” Markey said.

Facebook pauses effort to build Instagram for… 01:49

Markey asked Davis to promise that the company’s app for kids would not include “like” buttons, follower counts or posts from influencers who often sell products while highlighting their own lavish lifestyles.

Davis would not commit to such a pledge, while saying that Facebook would address those concerns.

Marsha Blackburn, Republican of Tennessee and the panel’s ranking member, asked Facebook to provide Congress with a copy of the parental consent form it requires before collecting data on underage users and pressed the company to commit to not retaliating against employees anonymously sharing information with Congress.

Next Tuesday, the same Senate subcommittee is scheduled to hear testimony from a Facebook whistleblower about the company’s work to create a kids’ Instagram.

“We would never retaliate against someone coming for speaking with Congress,” Davis said, adding, “That’s just not who we are.”

Facebook has failed, senator says

Davis did not answer repeated questions about how Facebook assesses the financial value of its underage users and what portion of the company’s revenue came from minors, instead saying “that’s not how we build out products.” She also pushed back against claims that its technology was addictive, pointing to features that let users track their time on the app.

Davis’ promise that Facebook would release more internal research around Instagram Kids was met with skepticism by panel members. 

“One of the most discouraging parts of your testimony is that you are relying on your past record of transparency for what you will do in the future,” Blumenthal told Davis. “There are thousands of documents that we have only because a whistleblower has come forward. Documents that show your own findings.”

He added, “The record so far says that Facebook has failed to hold itself accountable.”

CBS News’ Irina Ivanova contributed reporting.