Facebook executives are hiding research that shows Instagram is toxic for young people and especially for teen girls, a former Facebook employee told a Senate committee Tuesday.
Frances Haugen, a former data scientist at Facebook, quit the company and became a whistleblower this year by releasing thousands of pages of insider documents she says shows the company knows that its products – primarily Facebook and Instagram – are bad for society as currently constructed.
“The choices being made inside of Facebook are disastrous for our children, for our public safety, for our privacy and for our democracy. And that is why we must demand Facebook make changes,” Haugen told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
Instagram is a social media platform dominated by photos, often selfies.
The papers leaked by Haugen show that in one study of U.K. teen girls, 13.5 percent said suicidal thoughts became more frequent after using Instagram. In another study that was leaked, 17 percent of teen girls said their eating disorders became worse due to Instagram.
A Facebook study of teens in the U.S. and U.K. found that more than 40 percent of Instagram users “who reported feeling ‘unattractive’ said the feeling began on the app,” The Wall Street Journal reported.
“If Instagram is such a positive force, have we seen a golden age of teenage mental health in the last 10 years?” Haugen asked, rhetorically. “No, we’ve seen escalating rates of suicide and depression among teenagers.”
"I joined Facebook because I think Facebook has the potential to bring out the best in us - but, I am here today because I believe Facebook's products harm children, stoke division, and weaken our democracy." - Facebook whistleblower Francis Haugen pic.twitter.com/lp1wmwSI6Z— Amee Vanderpool (@girlsreallyrule) October 5, 2021
During another portion of the hearing, she said, “Facebook knows that they are leading young users to anorexia content.”
U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) asked if the rates of suicide and depression are driven by social media.
“There is a broad swath of research,” Sullivan answered, “that supports the idea that usage of social media amplifies the risk for these mental health harms. And Facebook’s own research shows that. … Kids are saying, ‘I am unhappy when I use Instagram and I can’t stop. But if I leave I’m afraid I’ll be ostracized.’”
Facebook, she said, chooses profit over what is best for children and society at large.
“The documents I have provided to Congress prove that Facebook has repeatedly misled the public about what its own research reveals about the safety of children, the efficacy of its artificial intelligence systems and its role in spreading divisive and extreme messages. I came forward because I believe that every human being deserves the dignity of the truth,” she said. “... When we figured out cars were safer with seat belts, the government took action. And when our government learned that opioids were taking lives, the government took action. I implore you to do the same here.”
In 20 years, Sullivan said, Americans will look back and be aghast at the “damage” that was done “to a generation of kids.”
“Facebook knows that Instagram dramatically changes the experience of high school,” Haugen said. “... Kids who are bullied on Instagram, the bullying follows them home ... into their bedrooms. The last thing they see before they go to bed at night is someone being cruel to them. ... Think about how that's going to impact their domestic relationships.
“... I don’t understand how Facebook can know all these things and not escalate it to someone like Congress for help and support.”
Following Haugen’s testimony, the National Center on Sexual Exploitation urged Congress to take action.
“Frances Haugen confirmed what NCOSE has warned for years: Facebook routinely chooses profit over safety. The company is, in fact, structured to do so,” said Dawn Hawkins, CEO of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation.
Hawkins suggested several solutions: require age-appropriate safeguards by default on platforms likely to be used by children; raise the digital age of adulthood from 13 to 17; appoint a “new federal e-safety commissioner to improve oversight in real time”; pass a bill known as the “EARN IT Act” to “confront the explosion of child sexual abuse material on tech platforms.”
“Congress must step in,” Hawkins said.
Photo credit: ©Getty Images/МихаилРуденко
Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.