US lawmakers grill Facebook on spiking mental health fears

Washington (AFP) –


US lawmakers Thursday demanded pledges from Facebook to address spiking concerns over its platforms' impact on teens' mental health, but a top executive instead offered assurances they are safe.

Senators grilled the social media giant's Antigone Davis in an hours-long Capitol Hill hearing called over damning reports that Facebook's own research warned of the harm Instagram can do to teenage girls' well-being.

"This research is a bombshell. It is powerful, gripping, riveting evidence that Facebook knows of the harmful effects of its site on children, and that it has concealed those facts and findings," Senator Richard Blumenthal said.

Davis, under questioning from Blumenthal and other senators, repeatedly said a Wall Street Journal series had selectively chosen parts of its research to give an inaccurately dark vision of the company's work.

She told lawmakers that a survey of teens on 12 serious issues like anxiety, sadness and eating disorders, showed that Instagram was generally helpful to them.

"On 11 of the 12 issues, teen girls who said they struggled with those issues, were more likely to say that Instagram was affirmatively helping them, not making it worse," she said.

Yet parts of the company's own research detailed in the Journal stories included lines like "We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls."

The social media giant has faced a growing backlash, including Thursday's hearing, in the wake of the reports, and it has halted work on a fiercely criticized plan to make a version of Instagram for children under 13.

Facebook argued a specially designed platform would allow some parental control in an online world already full of children, but critics called it a cynical strategy to hook the youngest users.

Lawmakers on Thursday demanded Facebook release all of its research and sought pledges the company would abandon its plans for the children's Instagram project.

Davis said the company was looking into ways to share more of its findings, but that there were privacy concerns to manage.

On Wednesday, the company released a heavily annotated version of two presentations on its own research but it was unclear what percentage they represent of its internal studies.

The company has been under relentless pressure to guard against being a platform where misinformation, hate and child-harming content can spread, while at the same time remain a forum for people to speak freely.

Legislators have also struggled to pass new rules that would update online protections in decades-old laws crafted before social media even existed.