Facebook grilled in Senate hearing over teen mental health

Last night, Facebook published two annotated slide decks in an attempt to contextualize the documents that The Wall Street Journal published this month, which reported evidence that the company is aware of its negative impact on teen mental health. These documents were released in anticipation of today’s Senate hearing on the mental health harms of Facebook and Instagram.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation questioned Facebook Global Head of Security Antigone Davis over two and a half hours, but lawmakers grew frustrated with Davis’ reticence to answer their questions directly, or provide much information that hasn’t been written in Facebook blog posts rebuking the WSJ reports.

“I congratulate you on a perfectly curated background,” Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn chided Davis. “It looks beautiful coming across the screen. I wish the messages that you were giving us were equally as attractive.”

Davis insisted that research from Facebook and Instagram has shown eight out of 10 young people say they have a neutral positive experience on the app, and that her team wants 10 out of 10 young users to have a good experience. But Senators pushed back with other findings from Facebook’s own data, like the fact that among teenagers with suicidal thoughts, 13% of British users and 6% of American users said they could trace those thoughts to Instagram. Senator Richard Blumenthal (who serves as Chair of the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security) said that his office did their own research by creating an account pretending to be a 13-year-old girl. Senator Blumenthal said they followed “easily findable accounts associated with extreme dieting and eating disorders.” Within a day, he said, the account’s recommendations were solely composed of accounts promoting self-harm and disordered eating.

“That is the perfect storm that Instagram has fostered and created. Facebook has asked us to trust it. But after these evasions and these revelations, why should we?” Senator Blumenthal asked.

But in the midst of filibustering tactics that fit right in on the Senate floor (“We’re pretty good at filibustering in the Senate, too,” Senator Klobuchar told Davis), the Facebook Global Head of Safety did elaborate on some of the company’s plans to improve young users’ experience, which Head of Instagram Adam Mosseri previously mentioned on Twitter.

“Young people indicated that when they saw uplifting content or inspiring content, that could move them away from some other issues that they’re struggling with,” Davis said at the hearing. “So one of the things that we’re actually looking at is called ‘nudges,’ where we would actually nudge someone who we saw potentially rabbit-holing down content towards more uplifting or inspiring content.”

In addition to a “nudges” feature, Davis said that the company is looking at a “take a break” feature, which would encourage users to stop looking at the app if they’ve been browsing certain content for too long. In 2018, Instagram introduced a “you’re all caught up” notice, which would appear when the user had scrolled through all posts from the last two days. This feature was introduced alongside “do not disturb” toggles, which helped users control when they wanted to receive notifications. These updates were part of “Time Well Spent” initiatives, designed to curb screen time and encourage healthier social media habits. But by 2020, the space beneath the “caught up” notice was turned into a feed of suggested posts and ads.

At the hearing, Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey (a social media star in his own right) announced that he would reintroduce legislation with Senator Blumenthal called the KIDS (Kids Internet Design and Safety) Act, which seeks to create new protections for online users under 16. The bill would prohibit platforms directed at children from leveraging follower and like counts, push alerts that encourage users to use the app more, auto-play settings, badges that award elevated levels of engagement, or any design feature that unfairly encourages a user (“due to their age or inexperience,” the bill specifies) to make purchases, submit content, or spend more time on a platform.

Previously introduced in March 2020, Facebook has known about the proposed legislation for almost a year and a half.

“I think our company has made its position really well known that we believe it’s time for the update of internet regulations, and we’d be happy to talk to and work with you on that,” Davis told Senator Markey.

But when Markey directly asked if Facebook would support the KIDS Act, Davis said that Facebook would follow up on the question later.

“Well, your company has had this legislation in your possession for months. And you’re testifying here today before the committee that would have to pass this legislation,” said Senator Markey. “I just feel that delay and obfuscation is the legislative strategy of Facebook, especially since Facebook has spent billions of dollars on a marketing campaign calling on Congress to pass internet regulations, and Facebook purports to be committed to children’s well being.”

At the end of the hearing, Davis said that she hopes the Senate will have hearings with companies that have kid-focused apps, like TikTok and YouTube. Currently, Facebook has a Messenger Kids app, but the company but its Instagram for kids product on hold in light of WSJ’s reporting. Though WSJ has published six leaked documents from Facebook, the company itself only annotated and re-published two of them.