Instagram tightens teen defenses as US hearing looms

A model poses for a selfie in scenery resembling a luxurious interior of a business airplane at a special Selfieroom in Zagreb, Croatia, 21 April 2021. Zagreb, and the whole of Croatia, now has its first 'Selfieroom', a unique place for special photo experiences, where customers can enjoy in making photos, mainly selfies, in specially arranged sceneries, which they can then publish in social media like Instagram, Facebook, Tik Tok and others. [EPA-EFE/ANTONIO BAT]

Instagram announced new protections on Tuesday (7 December) for young users, a day before the photo-sharing app’s CEO faces a grilling from US lawmakers on whether the platform is “toxic” for children.

The app will be stricter about what it recommends to teen users and will suggest a break if they have been spending a lot of time on the platform, chief executive Adam Mosseri said in a post.

Meta-owned Instagram has been central to the reputational crisis the social media colossus has battled since a whistleblower leaked documents showing executives knew of their sites’ risks for making teens feel badly about themselves.

Mosseri, who appears before a Senate panel on Wednesday, defended the platform in his post, saying: “Every day I see the positive impact that Instagram has for young people everywhere.”

“I want to make sure that it stays that way, which means above all keeping them safe on Instagram,” he added.

The app is also to start “nudging” teens toward new topics if there is one they have been dwelling on for a while and will stop people from mentioning teens who don’t follow them on the platform, Mosseri said.

Lawmakers voiced skepticism over the platform’s capacity to protect kids, as well as the timing of the announcement of the new safety features.

“Meta is attempting to shift attention from their mistakes by rolling out parental guides, use timers and content control features that consumers should have had all along,” said Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn, who will question Mosseri at Wednesday’s hearing.

“My colleagues and I see right through what they are doing,” she added.

Call to share research   

Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat who will also attend the hearing, said press reports based on the leaked Facebook documents had showed Instagram’s “toxic impacts.”

“We want to hear straight from the company’s leadership why it uses powerful algorithms that push poisonous content to children driving them down rabbit holes to dark places and what it will do to make its platform safer,” he added.

Instagram said its break suggestion feature launched in Australia, Britain, Canada and the United States, and will expand to other countries by early next year.

The platform also introduced an educational hub for parents, to “help them get more involved with their teen’s experiences” and tools for them to set limits on how much time their children spend in the app, Mosseri said.

Facing pressure, the company had previously announced it would suspend, but not abandon, the development of a version of Instagram meant for users younger than 13.

The leaks from Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen gave new momentum to the push in Washington to regulate social media, which has avoided tough restrictions, as the technology outpaced legislative efforts and partisan deadlock stymied proposals.

Haugen undertook a series of appearances before lawmakers and officials in the European Union, which is pushing ahead with legislation that could set unprecedented oversight on Big Tech.

Facebook whistleblower asks European Parliament to get tough with DSA

Former Facebook employee Frances Haugen called on EU lawmakers to “set a gold standard” and take a tough stance in regulating big tech and safeguarding democracy during her testimony before the Parliament on Monday (8 November).

A coalition of scholars  across the world have urged Facebook’s parent Meta to work cooperatively with outside researchers in studying the company’s impacts on its billions of users.

“We call on you to solicit independent and transparent reviews of all past, present and future research on child and adolescent mental health,” said the letter published on the University of Oxford’s internet institute website.

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