Instagram effects on children investigated by coalition of states

A bipartisan coalition of state attorneys general said on Thursday it was investigating how Instagram attracts and affects young people, stepping up pressure on parent company Meta Platforms Inc.

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on the potential harm to its users.

Led by eight states, including Massachusetts and Nebraska, the coalition focuses on “techniques used by Meta to increase the frequency and duration of young user engagement and the resulting damage from such prolonged engagement.”

Attorneys general said they were investigating whether the company, formerly known as Facebook, had broken consumer protection laws and put the public at risk.

“When social media platforms treat our children as mere commodities to be manipulated for longer screen engagement and data mining, it becomes imperative that state attorneys general engage our investigative authority under our consumer protection laws, “said Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson, a Republican. .

Other attorneys general involved in coordinating the effort include California, Florida, Kentucky, New Jersey, Tennessee and Vermont. The full list of states joining the inquiry is not yet public, but a Massachusetts spokeswoman said it is broad and national.

A spokesperson for Meta said the investigation was based on a misunderstanding of issues affecting other social media platforms as well.

Doug Peterson of Nebraska is among state attorneys general investigating how Instagram attracts and affects young people.


Nati Harnik / Associated press

The investigation comes after careful consideration of the psychological effects of social media, and Instagram in particular, on teens. The Wall Street Journal reported in September that Instagram’s internal research had determined that its product could generate a “negative social comparison” among a wide range of users and exacerbate body image issues among those who struggle with it. the problem, especially young women. Instagram’s heavy photo design and emphasis on appearance likely made it particularly harmful, the research suggested.

Research has often phrased the question in harsh language. “We make body image issues worse for one in three teenage girls,” said an internal slide from 2019, summarizing research on teenage girls who experience these issues.

Members of Congress compared the tactics of Facebook and Instagram to those of the tobacco industry. Joanna Stern of the WSJ reviews the hearings of the two to explore what cigarette regulations can tell us about what could happen for Big Tech. Photo illustration: Adele Morgan / The Wall Street Journal

In an interview at the time of the Journal article, Instagram chief Adam Mosseri acknowledged the findings and said the company found resolving the issue extremely difficult. He defended the company’s products, however, calling social media a feature of modern life that offers advantages far greater than its disadvantages.

The company later denounced the Journal’s reporting as “chosen” and said research has also shown Instagram is helping some teenage girls cope with other serious issues.

Instagram announced in late September that it would be halting plans for a child-friendly version of its Instagram app, after lawmakers and others voiced concerns. Like other social media platforms, Instagram bans children under the age of 13, but the company said it is aware many of them are joining anyway.

In its statement on Thursday, the company said it was already addressing many of the issues surrounding the coalition’s investigation.

“We have been at the forefront of the industry in combating bullying and supporting those struggling with suicidal thoughts, self-harm and eating disorders,” the statement said. “We continue to create new features to help people who may be facing negative social comparisons or body image issues, including our new ‘Take a Break’ feature and ways to nudge them to others. types of content if they are blocked on a topic. . “

The internal research revelations sparked Senate hearings and testimony from Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee who gathered the internal files that were first examined by the Journal. Other articles in the series have shown in detail how Facebook researchers identified a number of ways its platforms are causing damage and the company has failed to fix them.

Lawmakers are also looking for additional legislation. “I am working hard on policies to strengthen the privacy and safety of children online,” said Senator Marsha Blackburn (R., Tenn.). “My colleagues and I continue to have important discussions and make substantial bipartisan progress.”

A spokeswoman for Senator Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn) said Mr Blumenthal supports many efforts currently underway, including the Children Act which aims to give parents more tools to protect their children.

District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine is also leading an independent investigation into Instagram’s potential harm to children.

The documents revealed both an internal discussion about the potential impact on the mental health of young users and the company’s fight against rival social media apps for these important consumers. Faced with stiff competition from Snapchat and TikTok – apps that Instagram says are often more appealing to its younger users – Meta had sought to create products that could help channel tweens on Instagram’s main platform and finally Facebook. In a paper reviewed by the Journal, marketing researchers expressed concern that older siblings “discourage tweens from sharing” on the platform.

Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri defended the company, calling social media a feature of modern life that offers advantages far greater than its disadvantages.


David Paul Morris / Bloomberg News

The survey is not the first sign of states’ interest in how Facebook and Instagram could harm young users. After Instagram’s plans to create a platform for tweens became public earlier this year, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey and 43 other U.S. states and territories wrote a public letter calling for the abandoning the idea, alleging that Instagram had failed to resolve not only mental issues. health issues, but bullying and use of the platform by child predators.

Mr Mosseri publicly sacked attorneys general at the time, saying the issue was best dealt with by legislatures.

The “responsibility of attorneys general is primarily to apply the law, not to draft it,” Mosseri said in an interview in May with the technology publication Information. He also said “there are things governments could do to help that are more helpful than writing a letter.”

Mr Mosseri’s comments helped convince attorneys general that the company was unlikely to address their concerns absent a challenge, according to a person familiar with the investigation.

Announcing the investigation, the attorneys general said they intend to examine not only the potential harms for young users, but also the ways Instagram has been marketed and the product features designed to manipulate users. or increase the time they spend on social networks.

“Facebook, now Meta, has failed to protect young people on its platforms and has instead chosen to ignore or in some cases double down on known manipulations that pose a real threat to physical and mental health – the exploitation of children for the sake of profit, ”said Ms. Healey, a Democrat. She cited the Instagram user survey and focus group work that found some teens associated using the app with mental health issues and even thoughts of harming yourself.

Write to Jeff Horwitz at [email protected] and Georgia Wells at [email protected]

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