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Congress plans probe of Instagram’s effect on teenage girls

Lawmakers respond to published report stating Facebook knows the platform is ‘toxic’

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Photo (c) Sveta Orlova - Getty Images
Two U.S. senators say they will launch an investigation into allegations that Facebook is aware that its popular Instagram platform is “toxic” for teenage girls.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who lead a Senate subcommittee on consumer protection, were spurred to action by an investigative report published Tuesday in The Wall Street Journal.

The report cited company documents and sources it said showed Facebook is aware that many teenage girls on the app are prone to negative body image. It suggests that the constant access to photos of fashion and fitness influencers' bodies is damaging to teens' self-esteem.

The article cited March 2020 internal research that found that 32% of teen girls said Instagram only made them feel worse when they felt bad about their bodies. “Comparisons on Instagram can change how young women view and describe themselves,” the researchers concluded.

Congress steps in

“It is clear that Facebook is incapable of holding itself accountable,” Blumenthal and Blackburn said in a joint statement. “The Wall Street Journal’s reporting reveals Facebook’s leadership to be focused on a growth-at-all-costs mindset that valued profits over the health and lives of children and teens.”

The two lawmakers said they were in touch with Facebook senior management over the summer and received “evasive” and “misleading” answers when they asked about how the platform affected its youngest users.

“We are in touch with a Facebook whistleblower and will use every resource at our disposal to investigate what Facebook knew and when they knew it — including seeking further documents and pursuing witness testimony,” the lawmakers concluded. “The Wall Street Journal’s blockbuster reporting may only be the tip of the iceberg.”

Facebook willing to work with Congress

A Facebook spokeswoman told the Journal that the company welcomed “productive collaboration” with members of Congress and would seek opportunities to work with outside researchers on credible studies.

The company also previously acknowledged internal research on the subject but said the findings are proprietary and would not be released. Congress, of course, has subpoena power.

One question lawmakers might pursue is whether or not Instagram is more harmful than other similar platforms. The Journal cites what it says is an internal document that suggests it is more damaging than other social media apps and sites.

“Social comparison is worse on Instagram,” the 2020 research report states. According to the Journal, the document points out that TikTok is all about performance, while rival Snapchat is focused on jokey face filters. It said Instagram, on the other hand, focuses heavily on appearance and lifestyle.

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