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Instagram chief Adam Mosseri grilled in Senate: ‘Our kids aren’t cash cows’

Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri testifies at a US Senate hearing in Washington, DC, on December 8, 2021. - Mosseri pushed a rosy view of the photo-sharing app's impact on teens in testimony to US lawmakers that was at odds with damning news reports based on the firm's own research. Mosseri argued the service could help struggling young people, after documents leaked by a company insider raised worries of harms, including a 2019 study saying Instagram makes body image issues worse for one in three teenage girls. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri testifies at a US Senate hearing in Washington, DC, on December 8, 2021. - (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

Instagram (FB) head Adam Mosseri testified before Congress on Wednesday to answer accusations that the photo-sharing site hurts teens’ mental health and is designed to keep them addicted to the platform owned by Facebook parent Meta.

The hearing, held before the Senate Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, follows revelations by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen who provided internal Meta research that showed Instagram negatively impacted the mental health of some teen girls.

On Tuesday, a day before the hearing, Mosseri posted a note on Instagram’s press site outlining a number of new safety features and parental controls the company plans to roll out in the coming weeks and months. Senators, however, found the timing suspect.

It seems inexcusable that Facebook waited a decade to begin, and only begin, to figure out that Instagram needs parental controls,” Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) told Mosseri.

“Unfortunately, these announced changes leave parents and kids with no transparency into the black box algorithms,” he added. “The 600-pound gorillas in those black boxes that drive the addictive content to children and teens.”

In his opening remarks, Mosseri recommended that an industry body be created to address issues like how to verify users’ ages, parental controls, and product designs. But Blumenthal suggested that Instagram can't be trusted to regulate itself.

Senators also made pointed remarks about Instagram’s business model with Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) saying: “Our kids aren’t cash cows. And that’s exactly what’s been going on.”

Klobuchar also questioned Mosseri as to whether Instagram sees signing younger people up as a means to ensure the platform has a feeder system for future users in the future.

Senators similarly hit Mosseri after finding their own kinds of loopholes in Instagram’s policies.

Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), for example, said her staff created an account for a fictitious 15-year-old girl that was set to be publicly visible by default. In July, Instagram said new accounts for users under 16 would be set to private by default.

The finding seemingly caught Instagram off guard, with Mosseri telling Blackburn that the company only found out about the problem just before the hearing. The issue, Mosseri said, applied to accounts created via a desktop browser, rather than through the Instagram app. He said the company was going to address the problem.

Senator Mike Lee (R-UT), meanwhile, said his staff created an account for a 13-year-old girl that was served up information about plastic surgery after following a major celebrity’s account. This finding conflicted with Mosseri’s assertion that such accounts aren’t supposed to be recommended to younger teens.

Mosseri’s appearance before the subcommittee follows a series of hearings on the impact of social media on society in general.

Members of the subcommittee have repeatedly called for improved privacy regulations, as well as transparency around social media platforms’ algorithms. However, Congress has yet to pass or bring forward any meaningful legislation on either topic.

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