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Senators fault Facebook on leaked research about teen users

Facebook's global head of safety defended the company's platforms after leaked internal research showed Facebook and Instagram negatively affect teens' mental health.

Internal research showed that Facebook and Instagram are harmful to teens' mental health -- research that might have stayed quiet until a whistleblower gave it to a newspaper. Today, a U.S. Senate committee grilled a Facebook official about the research, with one lawmaker calling it a "bombshell" report.

During a hearing Thursday, U.S. senators pressed Antigone Davis, Facebook's global head of safety, about the research originally reported by the Wall Street Journal in mid-September. Facebook released the documents to the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation Wednesday night.

Davis argued that the research was mischaracterized and not a "bombshell."

Facebook and other social media companies have come under fire for their collection and use of personal data, advertising practices and algorithms that promote content to their users, as federal leaders struggle with how to regulate tech giants and online platforms. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said Thursday's hearing was the third in a series of hearings aimed at helping senators draft legislation for social media companies, including Facebook, that addresses harms children and teens face on social media.

Blumenthal, chair of the senate committee, said that while Facebook publicly denies its platforms are harmful for teens, the research says otherwise.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, cited statistics from the leaked Facebook research that showed 6% of U.S. teen girls and 13% of U.K. teen girls linked thoughts of suicide to their use of Instagram.

"We're here today because Facebook has shown us once again that it is incapable of holding itself accountable," Blumenthal said. "Facebook has concealed research, studies, experts, that show harm that has been caused to children on its site, how it knew about that harm and how it concealed it continually."

Facebook argues platforms more helpful than harmful

Blumenthal said the whistleblower documents indicate that Facebook employees found substantial evidence suggesting that teens' experiences on Facebook and Instagram made negative body image issues worse.

"Facebook knows the disruptive consequences that Instagram's design and algorithms are having on our young people and our society, but it has routinely prioritized its own rapid growth over basic safety for our children," he said.

Facebook's Davis said its research was misinterpreted. Instead, she said it shows that "many teens say that Instagram is helping them with hard issues that are so common to being a teen."

One of the surveys referenced in the research, for instance, asked teen users about 12 "difficult and serious" issues such as loneliness, sadness, anxiety and eating disorders, Davis said.

"We asked teens who told us that they were struggling with these issues whether Instagram was making things better, worse or having no effect," Davis said. "On 11 of the 12 issues, teen girls who said they struggle with those issues were more likely to say that Instagram was affirmatively helping them, not making it worse. That was true for teen boys on 12 of 12 issues."

Davis said Facebook has built algorithms to identify suicidal content on the platform and offered resources for people searching for content related to issues such as suicidal thoughts and eating disorders. Facebook is also working on functions such as "take a break" recommendations for teens dwelling on the apps for too long, she said.

The company also recently halted a project providing a version of Instagram for children under the age of 13 following concern over the leaked research.

This research is a bombshell.
Richard Blumenthal U.S. Senator, D-Conn.

Senators pushed back, arguing that the research shows Facebook hasn't done enough to combat the negative effects of the social media platforms.

"This research is a bombshell," Blumenthal said. "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."

Senators pressed Davis about releasing further studies, as well as contextual data for the leaked studies. Davis said Facebook has to take privacy concerns into consideration before releasing any research or making data available to outside researchers for further studies.

Makenzie Holland is a news writer covering big tech and federal regulation. Prior to joining TechTarget, she was a general reporter for the Wilmington StarNews and a crime and education reporter at the Wabash Plain Dealer.

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