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Facebook grilled by lawmakers over social media pressures teens face

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Josh Golin, Fairplay Executive Director, discusses Facebook facing questions from lawmakers about Instagram's impact on teens' mental health.

Video Transcript

- We're here today because Facebook has shown us, once again, that it is incapable of holding itself accountable. This month, a whistleblower approached my office to provide information about Facebook and Instagram. Thanks to documents provided by that whistleblower, as well as extensive public reporting by the Wall Street Journal and others, we now have deep insight into Facebook's relentless campaign to recruit and exploit young users.

AKIKO FUJITA: Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal there, a member of the Senate's Commerce Committee, speaking to Facebook's Global Head of Safety over the impact that the Instagram app is having on young teens. The social media giant has fought back against those Wall Street Journal reports that the senator just alluded to, saying the platform has actually helped teenagers cope with mental health.

Let's bring in somebody who's very familiar with this, Josh Golin, Fairplay Executive Director. And Josh, I know you've done your own studies about the impact the app has had on young teens. What have you found? And is it consistent with the internal documents that have now been made public from Facebook?

JOSH GOLIN: Just to correct, I'm not a researcher, so we have not done our own studies. But there are lots of academic studies that show very similar findings to what Facebook found, which is that using Instagram increases anxiety, depression, is linked to eating disorders, poor self-image. This is not a secret. This is well-known.

And now we know that it was well-known within the company and that the company, meanwhile, was casting doubt on the research while they were hiding their own research. So this is extremely concerning. There's not a debate about the research at this point. And the only thing that matters at this point is what we do going forward.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah, and when it comes to what we do going forward, I mean, these issues have been kind of well-known for a bit. I guess, what's new here is that the internal documents showing that Facebook had a little bit more clarity in terms of the negative impacts the platform had on well-being, specifically when it comes to teen girls. And specifically, I guess, you know, if it's been going on for that long, what kind of hopes are there that the company would be willing to do anything on its own? Or what's it going to take from a regulatory perspective to change anything?

JOSH GOLIN: Well, I don't have any hope that the company is going to do anything on its own willingly. I mean, the fact that this research was brought to senior management at Facebook and then buried, and not only buried, but, you know, the company looked at the research that showed that the Instagram was harmful to teen girls, and their response was, well, let's extend this product to to younger children.

So there's-- we can't rely on Facebook to do the right thing. They've shown time and time again that they will throw children under the bus for their bottom line. So we need regulation. We need a congressional investigation of Facebook. We need better privacy laws that extend to teenagers. We need limits on what companies can do with their data.

And I think, you know, for the first time, we may actually see some movement in Congress because these documents are so explosive and the comparisons to big tobacco are so clear that I am hopeful that we will finally see some movement.

AKIKO FUJITA: Are there specific changes that you think can be made to the app if we're talking about Instagram that would make the platform healthier? I mean, constructive changes that you think would still allow for young teens to be on the platform, but have a different experience.

JOSH GOLIN: Well, I think, you know, the problem is the entire business model, right? So the entire business model is based on getting not just teens, but all of us, to be online as much as possible, to give up as much personal information about ourselves as possible, so that Facebook can collect this information, create profiles, and advertise back to us.

And so I think that, you know, first of all, we need policies that make it illegal to do data driven advertising, surveillance advertising to children under the age of 18. Because it's a completely unfair form of advertising to take everything we know about a teenager and use the most powerful algorithms ever directed-- ever created in order to try and get them to buy stuff. I mean, that's unfair in and of itself. But then we add in the fact that the business model is leading to all these other harms. And I think it's very clear that we need to prohibit this type of advertising to under 18s.

But I also think there are design things that Facebook could do. I mean, why do we have things like public displays of how many likes a picture gets or public displays of how many followers somebody gets? I mean, if we were creating social media from scratch, would we really want to recreate the high school cafeteria, where you can look and immediately see who are the cool and popular kids and see who aren't, and create that feeling of, gosh, I wish I was at the cool kids table, and I'm going to do anything I can, including posting provocative pictures of myself in order to get to the cool kids table?

So I think, you know, the entire design of Instagram is not conducive to-- and the culture is not conducive to promoting adolescent well-being. So I think we really need to look at tearing down some of those features and making it a much different experience for teens.

AKIKO FUJITA: Josh, you mentioned that the business model is at the heart of the issue, and yet Facebook isn't unique to that, right? I mean, you've got those platforms like YouTube that also are ad driven. They've put out their own YouTube Kids product. How effective has that been? And are there notes that Facebook can take or lessons learned from other platforms that have already moved forward with what they consider to be a more kid friendly product?

JOSH GOLIN: Well, I mean, first of all, I think YouTube Kids is a little bit of a different situation because YouTube Kids is not a social media platform. YouTube Kids is a video platform. They take the social media component out of the kid's version of YouTube. So there's no ability to comment on other people's videos or to have any kind of interaction with other users on YouTube Kids. So it's not a social media platform.

But I think one of the really important lessons from YouTube Kids for Facebook is Facebook keeps claiming that an Instagram Kids would be for the tweens who were lying their way onto Facebook. Well, what we know about tweens is that they want to emulate their older peers. There is no way that the 10, 11, and 12-year-olds who are lying their way currently onto Instagram are going to want to move to a platform that they see as babyish. They're going to want to be on the real thing.

And in fact, if you look at what's happened with YouTube Kids, YouTube Kids has been popular with preschool kids. As kids age out of their preschool age, they don't want to be caught dead on YouTube Kids. They want to be on the real YouTube. So I think that that is a clear message to Facebook that, you know-- and first of all, I don't believe that Facebook really thinks that this is a product for tweens who are lying their way onto Instagram.

I think they know that this is about going after younger kids. But I think the YouTube Kids experience is very instructive that 10-year-olds, 11-year-olds do not want to be on a babyish version. They want to lie their way onto the real thing. And so you have to address the problem of lying your way onto the real thing, not create additional products.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah, it's been interesting to see how that's all played out. I think back to the early days of email and AOL Kids and things like that that were created. Obviously, a little bit different in terms of what you can do on the internet now. But Josh Golin, Fairplay Executive Director, appreciate you coming on here to chat with us today.