Sen. Blumenthal: Facebook Weaponizes Childhood Suffering

As the lone witness, Antigone Davis, global head of safety for Facebook, faced an unhappy panel of legislators Thursday in the first of what will be two hearings in the Senate Commerce Committee on what the committee appears to conclude are the mental health harms to children of the company's platforms.

Antigone Davis

(Image credit: C-SPAN)

But Davis defended its internal research, which it said was not some kind of "bombshell," as well as its plans, eventually, for an Instagram Kids version.

Also Read: Hill To Hear From Facebook Whistle Blower

The dead giveaway for the tenor of the hearing was its title: “Protecting Kids Online: Facebook, Instagram, and Mental Health Harms." The follow-up hearing, Oct. 5, also on protecting children online, is with a Facebook whistle-blower.

Thursday's (Sept. 30) hearing, the third in a series on children's online protection, was presided over by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who made it clear from the outset Davis was in for a bumpy ride.

Blumenthal said that the hearings should lead to legislation, but also changes from Facebook.

Also Read: Facebook Will Participate in Instagram Hill Hearing

Blumenthal cited documents provided by the whistleblower saying that there was substantial evidence that experiences on Facebook's platforms made body dissatisfaction worse. He said that was a formal finding from Facebook employees that had been available to the highest levels of management.

(The whistleblower is apparently a woman, at least according to CBS' 60 Minutes, which said Thursday it would reveal "her" identity in this Sunday's (Oct. 3) show in advance of the Oct. 5 hearing.)

The senator said Facebook knew that children struggle with addiction to Instagram, "and they didn't want to admit it." One undisclosed Facebook survey found that there was an "addicts narrative" about the use of Facebook platforms. He said there was a pattern of such findings over four years worth of Facebook's own formal finding.

Blumenthal said Facebook has routinely prioritized the platform's financial wellbeing and growth over that of kids, and that it has been "indefensibly delinquent" in correcting that, taking only a few, "baby," steps.

Facebook did not create the problem, he acknowledged, and has signaled that other platforms will be in for scrutiny. But he said Facebook knew that Instagram was a "perfect storm" of "downward spiral" for kids, including fostering extreme dieting and eating disorders.

After evasions and revelations, why should we trust Facebook, he said, they have done nothing to earn it, taking big tobacco's playbook of hiding research about the negative effects of its platforms as it  weaponized childhood suffering.

Facebook has evaded, misled and deceived, he said.

Sen. Blackburn, for whom Big Tech accountability is a big issue, said Facebook knows their platform actively harms children. She said Facebook was scheming to attract even younger kids, working on Instagram Kids until pausing that effort this week in advance of the hearing.

She said Facebook is fully aware that underage children are using the platform, and recruit older kids get younger children on those platforms, use that can lead to anxiety and even suicidal thoughts.

Blackburn also said Facebook knew about content forcing women into domestic servitude but did nothing until Apple threatened to pull its app from the App Store.

She said Facebook was trying to mold the world into its profit image without regard for the consequences and that Facebook cannot be trusted with children or their data. She said she is certain Facebook and other tech platforms will be held to account.

In her turn behind the microphone Davis, who spoke remotely, pointed out she was a parent and former teach who cared deeply about the safety of kids online.

She said her job is to make sure Facebook is a leader in online safety, including bullying. She said the company treats the safety of all, but especially young people, as a priority.

She said that only those over 13 are authorized to use the platform, and remove younger users when they are identified.

About the internal research, she said it showed that many kids found that Instagram helped kids deal with serious issues. She said that teen girls who struggled with 11 of 12 issues said that Instagram helped them, not hurt them.

She said the most important thing is what they have done with the research, including tools to help limit time spent on their apps.

She also made a pitch for Instagram Kids, where parents can supervise their experience, rather than lie to get on a platform not built for them. She doubled down on a pause, rather than a plug-pull, on the project, which she suggested would be un-paused as soon as they had gotten it right.

Davis said Facebook would talk to parents, engage with more experts before that un-pause. Asked who would make the decision on un-pausing, Davis said there was no single person.

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said a "pause" was insufficient. He pointed out that 6% of teen users had said they linked their desire to kill themselves to Instagram. He called Instagram "that first childhood cigarette." He said Facebook is just like big tobacco, pushing a product they know is harmful. 

He asked David to commit not to launch a site that includes "like" buttons or follower features that allow kids to quantify popularity. 

Davis said the company would talk with experts about what features are and are not appropriate.  Markey shot back that if it still needed to do more research on that, Facebook should fire its researchers.

Davis said that as a former teenage girl, the mom of a teenage daughter, and teacher of teenagers, she wanted to point out that according to the research in question, more teen girls found Instagram helpful than not. She added that that did not mean that those who did not find it more helpful were not important to the company.

Blumenthal cut her off to ask if Facebook will commit to full disclosure. Davis said the company has made some documents available and was looking at making more available, but that there were privacy issues, but that it is not "bombshell" causal research. Blumenthal shot back that it was, in fact, a "bombshell," and asked her to commit to full disclosure of all documents.

Davis said that the company would try to make data available to third parties for independent review, which Blumenthal said has not been the case heretofore.

Blackburn said that she wished Davis' answers had been as attractive as the background behind her remote video.

"It is clear that nothing has changed at Facebook, despite being caught red-handed suppressing its own research," said Josh Golin, executive director of Fairplay (formerly Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood). "The company continues to view the fact that Instagram undermines teens' wellbeing as an inconvenient PR problem, not the pressing public health issue that it actually is....Through her evasions and non-responses, Antigone Davis made clear that the company will not make any substantive changes on its own."

He urged Congress to launch an investigation and subpoena all the company's research. 

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.