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Facebook exec grilled by lawmakers over mental health impact on children

Senators say Facebook's platforms, particularly Instagram, are failing children and families.

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Facebook owns Instagram, a social media app popular with teens.

Angela Lang/CNET

US lawmakers pressed Facebook on Thursday about the harmful effects its services could have on young people, especially teenagers, as concern mounts about what the social network knows regarding its impact on users.

The Senate hearing, titled Protecting Kids Online: Facebook, Instagram, and Mental Health Harms, follows a series of stories in The Wall Street Journal about the social network's knowledge of the harm its platforms cause and its efforts to downplay those harms publicly. One of the stories reported that Facebook-owned Instagram's internal research shows the photo-sharing app specifically hurts the mental health of teen girls, particularly regarding body image. 

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"Facebook has shown us once again that it is incapable of holding itself accountable," Sen. Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut Democrat who chairs the subcommittee, said Thursday. "We know it chooses the growth of its products over the well being of our children."

Facebook's global head of safety, Antigone Davis, represented the company at the hearing. She told senators she "strongly disagrees" with the Journal's characterization of the company's research, noting that its internal studies also showed the positive impact the app can have on teens. On Wednesday evening, Facebook released some of the research publicly and said it planned to look at ways to release more information.

The hearing, which was heated at times, is another example of the intensifying scrutiny of the world's largest social network. US lawmakers of both political parties have demanded more answers from tech platforms, especially social networks like Facebook, about the impact they have on young users. Blumenthal said Thursday's hearing is intended to help lawmakers draft legislation that'll prompt social networks like Facebook to take action. 

Sen. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, said Facebook has lost trust and that lawmakers will hold the social network accountable. At several points during the hearing, lawmakers compared Instagram to Big Tobacco, hooking teens early to social media by exploiting their desire to be popular online. 

"IG stands for Instagram but it also stands for Instagreed," said Sen. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat. He also compared Instagram to Big Tobacco, calling it the "first childhood cigarette" that gets kids hooked.

At one point, Facebook's Davis disputed the importance of the company research at the center of the Journal's reports, which was also a frequent point of reference for the senators. 

"I want to be clear that this research is not a bombshell," Davis said. "It's not causal research." 

Blumenthal pushed back, calling the research "powerful, gripping, riveting evidence" that Facebook knew of the harms its platforms have on children. He said his office created an Instagram account that identified its owner as a 13-year-old girl, adding the account was recommended content about eating disorders and self-harm. 

The Connecticut senator inspired a brief flurry on Twitter when he asked Davis if Facebook would get rid of finstas, private Instagram accounts often maintained by teenagers in order to escape parental supervision.

"Will you commit to ending finsta?" Blumenthal asked Davis, who replied that finstas aren't official Facebook products.

The exchange prompted a flurry of jokes on Twitter, which the senator joined by tweeting out the "How Do You Do, Fellow Kids?" meme featuring actor Steve Buscemi.  The meme is often used as a response to people trying to enter a digital community they aren't part of.

Instagram on Monday said it would pause work on a children's version of its app. Davis said the company has been working on this project to give parents more control over their children's social media accounts. 

"We recognize how important it is to get this right and we've heard your concerns, which is why we announced that we are pausing the project to take more time," she said. Davis added that Facebook is exploring more tools that would "nudge" users to more "uplifting content" or to take a break if they're spending too much time on the platform. 

Thursday's hearing is one of several the subcommittee has planned. Lawmakers are also seeking answers from other social networks. On Oct. 5, a Facebook whistleblower is scheduled to testify before US lawmakers. The whistleblower, who hasn't been identified, will be interviewed on 60 Minutes on Oct. 3.

CNET's Andrew Morse contributed to this report.