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Ex-Facebook (FB) employee Frances Haugen testified to the U.S. Senate on Tuesday that Instagram was addictive to kids “just like cigarettes” and that the social network knows that it’s “leading young users to anorexia content.”
The testimony came after Haugen leaked a trove of internal Facebook documents that included the spread of misinformation and divisiveness on the site, the ill effects of Instagram on young users, and other topics that set off a cascade of criticisms of the social media giant.
But Facebook VP of content policy Monika Bickert told Yahoo Finance on Tuesday that the documents have been mischaracterized and noted that Haugen had not worked on any of the issues related to the leaked material.
“I think we've seen some serious mischaracterizations that I'm happy to be here today … to help set the record straight,” said Bickert, who has been with Facebook for nearly a decade.
Bickert pointed to one leaked survey finding that 32% of teenage girls reported that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.
“The stolen documents contain what is not a peer reviewed research article, but was instead a survey of a small number, I think around 40 Instagram users, who were teens who were already struggling with mental health issues,” she said.
Bickert pointed out that the survey’s results also showed that both boys and girls said Instagram either helped them feel better about issues including self-harm and anxiety or did not have a material effect on those issues.
“The research that we're doing is so that we can understand people having a bad experience, and then...actually build new products and tools that can help,” Bickert said. “Examples would include when you go on Instagram, now if you're a young person, hiding the number of likes that your content gets...or giving people tools to restrict those who can follow them so that they don't have to worry about bullying and harassment.”
On Facebook, 'one young person having a bad experience is too much'
Facebook had planned to launch a version of Instagram for children under 13 but postponed the new product last week after Haugen leaked the internal documents to the Wall Street Journal. The prospect of a version of Instagram for kids under 13 has raised concerns among regulators including more than 40 attorneys general who called on Facebook to abandon the idea in May.
For her part, Bickert referred to her own prior career as a federal prosecutor in Illinois when discussing the social media giant’s effects on children.
“I spent my career before Facebook in child safety and criminal prosecution. And I know I speak for all of us who work on safety at Facebook when I say that even one young person having a bad experience is too much,” she said.
Instagram says that a version of the platform for kids would allow parents to better monitor their children on the service and address issues including children under 13 using the full version of Instagram.
But some experts say that Facebook also stands to benefit from the proposed app, as getting younger users on board at an early age would help lock them in as users as they age and graduate to the full app where they can be targeted for advertisements.
During her testimony Tuesday, Haugen said the leaked documents showed teens found it difficult to stop using Instagram even when they know they should.
“One of the documents we sent in on problematic use examined the rates of problematic use by age, and that peaked with 14-year-olds,” Haugen said. “It’s just like cigarettes. Teenagers don’t have good self-regulation. They say explicitly, ‘I feel bad when I use Instagram, and yet I can’t stop.’ ”
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