Instagram chief denies platform prioritises profit over users’ mental health

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Instagram’s chief executive has defended the company against accusations that the platform harms children’s mental health during a bruising congressional hearing into how it affects younger users.

Adam Mosseri denied the company had prioritised maximising profits over protecting young people following revelations that Instagram covered up research into the damage it does to teenage girls in particular.

Challenged as to whether the company’s profit incentive clashed with its duty of care for users, he said: “Respectfully, I disagree.”

The hearing before the Senate commerce committee on Wednesday gave Mosseri his first chance to respond publicly to accusations made by Frances Haugen, former Facebook employee turned whistleblower.

During two hours of largely hostile questioning, Mosseri insisted that Haugen’s central charge — that the company exposes its users to harm to protect profits — was untrue.

“Over the long run it has to be better for us as a business if people feel good about the time that they spend on our platform.”

Mosseri also advocated for tighter regulation of the social media industry in general, calling for the establishment of a new regulator to set rules on how platforms should deal with younger users.

“We believe there should be an industry body that will determine best practices when it comes to at least three questions: how to verify age, how to design age-appropriate experiences, and how to build parental controls.”

He added that companies should face losing their legal protection against libel lawsuits under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act if they fail to comply.

Haugen revealed earlier this year that Facebook — now renamed Meta — has data on how its products can effect younger users’ mental health, for instance fuelling teenage girls’ preoccupation with body image.

But Mosseri repeatedly refused to share all of the company’s internal market research into how its products affect young users, drawing angry responses from several senators.

Richard Blumenthal, the Democratic chair of the committee, told him: “This answer is, in my view, just completely unsatisfactory. We want the studies, we want the research, we want the surveys.”

The hearing came amid a broader regulatory crackdown on Meta and other social media companies. Last month a bipartisan coalition of US attorneys-general announced an investigation into how Facebook targets and engages young people on its Instagram platform and the potential harm it may cause.

Separately, the UK is pursuing an online harms bill with guidelines around child safety on social media. Meta has come to rely on Instagram in particular as a driver of growth as its main Facebook app loses traction in western markets.

Ahead of the hearing, Instagram on Tuesday announced new tools designed to improve safety for younger users, including giving parents the ability to set time limits on their children’s use of the app.

Senators greeted that announcement with scepticism, however.

Marsha Blackburn, the most senior Republican on the committee, said: “We fully share the goal of protecting kids and teens online. What we aren’t sure about is how the half-measures you’ve introduced are going to get us to the point where we need to be.”

Meanwhile, some lawmakers and child safety groups have been pushing for Meta to abandon plans to launch Instagram Kids, a version of the app for children under the age of 13, arguing that it is designed to get children hooked on social media at an early age and start collecting their personal data.

Mosseri has previously argued that the app would be free of adverts and grant parents more controls over what their children see, offering a safer alternative to existing ones.

In September, Meta suspended plans to launch the Kids app in order to incorporate more feedback from safety groups and lawmakers, but it has not abandoned its plans altogether. Mosseri said it would be his decision whether or not to do so.

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