Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, testifies before the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. Photo by Sarah Silbiger/UPI | License Photo
Dec. 8 (UPI) -- Senate lawmakers on Wednesday pressed Instagram head Adam Mosseri about the social network's failure to ensure children's safety on the platform.
Mosseri, in his first testimony before Congress, responded to lawmakers' concerns by calling for the creation of an industry body to govern social media networks. Members of the Senate subcommittee on consumer protection, product safety and data security were dissatisfied with his vision and called for more direct regulation of the company.
In his opening statement, Mosseri described child safety as an "industry-wide issue" that also affects competitors such as YouTube and TikTok.
"We've been calling for regulation for nearly three years now and from where I sit, there's no area more important than youth safety," he said.
Mosseri suggested a body within the industry that would create standards for age verification, age-appropriate experience and online parental controls. He added the body should receive input from civil society and parents and could make tech companies' legal protections dependent on adhering to its standards.
Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., dismissed the idea, saying an industry entity would only serve to continue the status quo, while subcommittee Chairman Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., asked whether Instagram would support the creation of an independently funded governing body with independently appointed members.
"Self-policing depends on trust," Blumenthal said. "The trust is gone."
Mosseri declined to explicitly commit to accepting an independent board. He also declined a request by Blumenthal to permanently halt the development of Instagram Kids, a planned product for children aged 10-12, stating that parents would have control over their children's access to the product when it is completed.
The hearing comes as part of a broader probe into youth safety online including testimony from executives at TikTok and YouTube and after testimony by whistleblower Frances Haugen who said in October that Instagram's parent company Meta, which at the time was known as "Facebook," has long known about misinformation and hate speech on its platforms and negative impacts -- especially from Instagram -- on young users.
On Tuesday, Instagram announced the launch of "Take a Break," a new tool available in the United States and several other countries encouraging younger users to take a break from the app if they have been using it for a prolonged period of time as part of its efforts to increase child safety.
Mosseri sparred with Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, over a report by U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy on youth mental health.
The report states that technology and other tools "can pit us against each other, reinforce negative behaviros like bullying and exclusion and undermine the safe and supportive environments young people need and deserve" if not deployed "responsibly and safely."
Sullivan noted a rise in suicide attempts by adolescent girls mentioned in the report, which cited both the pandemic and social media.
Mosseri pushed back on the suggestion that social media was responsible for that increase.
"I want to be clear that I don't believe the research shows that social media is driving the rise in suicides," he said.
When pressed by Sullivan that the report suggested limiting social media use by young people, Mosseri said he believed the connection was unfounded.
"From what I've read of the surgeon general's report so far, it's about a number of different issues not just suicides so to make a connection between one problem that he talks about and one of the recommendations he makes I think is a bit of a leap," he said, adding the company is working on tools to help parents limit their children's usage.
During his testimony Wednesday, Mosseri also said Instagram is actively working on a version of its content feed that allows users to sort media chronologically, rather than an order determined by the platform's algorithm after shifting toward the latter beginning in 2016.
Blumenthal grilled Mosseri about Instagram's failure to act on accounts that promote eating disorders.
In September, Blumenthal's office conducted an experiment in which they set up an Instagram account belonging to a 13-year-old girl. The account followed pages focused on dieting and eating disorders and Instagram quickly promoted other accounts that glorified eating disorders.
While Instagram acknowledged the pages violated its policies and shut them down after it was sent a sample of the accounts by CNN, Blumenthal on Wednesday that said his office repeated the experiment this week and encountered the same result.
"We created another fake account for a teenager and followed a few accounts promoting eating disorders and again, within an hour, all of our recommendations prompted pro-anorexia and eating disorder content," Blumenthal said. "Nothing has changed, it's all still happening, and in the meantime, more lives have been broken."
Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., also said her office conducted an experiment that exposed a flaw in Instagram's protection for teens on the platform.
Blackburn said her office created an Instagram account for a 15-year-old girl ahead of the meeting through a web browser and the account was set to public by default, despite Instagram stating all accounts of people younger than 16 are automatically set to private, meaning other users must request to follow them in order to see their posts.
"It turns out that we default those under the age of 16 to private accounts for the vast majority of accounts, which are created on Android and iOS but we have missed that on the web and we will correct that quickly," he said, while declining to answer whether the platform would consider making accounts for all minors private by default.
Asked by Blackburn to address parents whose children's mental or physical health have been negatively affected by the platform, Mosseri said that as the father of three boys he could not begin to imagine what it would be like to be a parent "that has ever lost a child or had a child hurt themself."
"As the head of Instagram, it's my responsibility to do all I can to keep people safe, I've been committed to that for years and I'm going to continue to do so," he said. "Whether or not we invest more than every other company or not doesn't really matter for any individual, if any individual harms themselves or has a negative experience on our platform, that's something I take incredibly seriously."
Brian Deese, Director of the National Economic Council, speaks during a news conference in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House on Thursday. Photo by Tasos Katopodis/UPI | License Photo