A group of Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill is pushing back against Facebook's
"Given Facebook's past failures to protect children and in light of evidence that using Instagram may pose a threat to young users' wellbeing, we have serious concerns about this proposal," lawmakers wrote in a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. "Facebook has an obligation to ensure that any new platforms or projects targeting children put those users' welfare first, and we are skeptical that Facebook is prepared to fulfill this obligation."
Children under the age of 13 are not currently allowed on Facebook apps due to federal privacy laws. The letter to Zuckerberg was co-signed by four Democrat lawmakers: Sen. Edward J. Markey, Rep. Lori Trahan, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, and Rep. Kathy Castor.
Blumenthal and Marsha Blackburn, R, also announced last week that their committee would be looking into the negative effects of social media on children.
"It is clear that Facebook is incapable of holding itself accountable," the senators wrote in a press release. "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 probe is relying on assistance from a whistleblower inside the social media company. The purpose of the probe is to "investigate what Facebook knew and when they knew it - including seeking further documents and pursuing witness testimony."
Zuckerberg has stated that creating a version of Instagram for kids is meant to reduce the number of children on the current Instagram app. On the new app, parents would have some control over their children's activities. However, the Democratic lawmakers argue that direct action should be taken to address the number of children on the current app, rather than creating a new app specifically for children.
Cited throughout the letter are concerns about the mental health and privacy of the children who use the app. Studies have shown a link between the use of social media and an "increase in mental distress, self-injurious behavior and suicidality among youth." Other studies show that children with depression or depression symptoms are roughly twice as likely to use social media excessively. Further studies report that one in five children with profiles on Instagram has been bullied on the app.
Regarding children's privacy, the lawmaker referenced a story from 2019 in which it was reported that children on Facebook's Messenger Kids were able to communicate with people who had not been approved by their parents, circumventing the app's intended restrictions thanks to a bug in the software.
The stated goal of the letter is two-fold: first, they request responses from Facebook on a number of questions and concerns voiced by the lawmakers. They wish to know the age range of users, the data that will be collected, the relationship between Instagram and Instagram for children, details of the community guidelines.
Second, they are asking Facebook to agree to a number of commitments, including barring the sale of children's data and barring the use of "influencer marketing", app "push alerts", and beauty filters. They also want Facebook to release any research they've conducted into the effects of social media on children.
"Should Facebook fail to provide adequate responses to the questions above or otherwise fail to demonstrate that a future version of Instagram for children would meet the highest standards of user protection, we would advise you to abandon your plans to launch this new platform," the lawmakers wrote.
Buzzfeed first announced news of Facebook's proposed kids' Instagram in March of this year, and the project has received steady and vocal criticism ever since. 44 state attorneys general, as well as a number of child safety groups, have asked Facebook to drop the plans.
Much of the criticism comes from allegations that Zuckerberg is completely aware of the danger posed by Facebook apps. According to The Journal, leaked internal documentation from 2019 suggested that Facebook is aware of the danger posed by Instagram for teenagers. In summarizing one company study, Facebook officials wrote: "We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls."
Lawmakers also told reporters that Zuckerberg had mentioned studies into increased suicide rates among children at a Congressional hearing in 2019.
"When given the opportunity to come clean to us about their knowledge of Instagram's impact on young users, Facebook provided evasive answers that were misleading and covered up clear evidence of significant harm," Blumenthal and Blackburn wrote in their press release.