Instagram head Mosseri to face questions about child safety in Senate hearing

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On Wednesday afternoon, head of Instagram Adam Mosseri will appear before a Senate Commerce subcommittee to answer questions about whether the photo-sharing app is harmful to children’s health. It’s Mosseri’s first appearance before Congress and the first hearing to specifically address Instagram separately from Facebook.

The hearing, titled Protecting Kids Online: Instagram and Reforms for Young Users, will be streamed live from the Senate beginning at 2:30PM ET.

Instagram has been the focus of growing concern from lawmakers and parents, following a bombshell report in The Wall Street Journal based on documents provided by whistleblower Frances Haugen. Those documents suggested that Facebook was well aware that Instagram is “toxic” for its teenage users and that its algorithms could direct them to content that may encourage self-harm. Lawmakers have said they want to toughen child privacy laws, including updating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), and are seeking broader reforms aimed specifically at Facebook and Instagram.

In October, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) wrote a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, demanding the company explain how Instagram plans to protect children. He later extended the invitation to Mosseri.

“Parents across America are deeply disturbed by ongoing reports that Facebook knows that Instagram can cause destructive and lasting harms to many teens and children, especially to their mental health and wellbeing,” Blumenthal wrote. “Those parents, and the twenty million teens that use your app, have a right to know the truth about the safety of Instagram.”

Blumenthal has called for new online child safety measures to address concerns around the app.

Pressure is also mounting from anti-tech groups outside of Congress. On Tuesday, the Tech Transparency Project released a report claiming Instagram’s algorithms are recommending drug dealers’ accounts to underage users on the platform. Stephanie Otway, a spokesperson for Instagram parent company Meta, said in a statement to NBC News that the platform does not allow drug sales, and that it would “continue to improve in this area in our ongoing efforts to keep Instagram safe, particularly for our youngest community members.”

Concerns about Instagram became particularly relevant in March, when news leaked that parent company Facebook was planning a version of Instagram for children under age 13. Reaction was swift and mostly negative, with public health experts urging the company to reconsider, saying in an April letter that such a platform would “put young users at great risk.”

Facebook said in September it was “pausing” work on the kids version of Instagram, with Mosseri insisting that the pause was not “a concession that the project is a bad idea.” He said at the time that he believed “parents would prefer the option for their children to use an age-appropriate version of Instagram — that gives them oversight — than the alternative. But I’m not here to downplay their concerns, we have to get this right.”

Instagram has already made some minor product changes aimed at addressing concerns around unhealthy usage in advance of the hearing. On Tuesday, the platform rolled out the “Take a Break” feature it started testing last month, to users in the United States and other English-speaking countries. The feature prompts users to pause using the app after they’ve been using it for a certain time period. Take a Break is opt-in, but the company said a test of the feature showed that 90 percent of users will leave the reminders on once set. More parental controls over their teenagers’ use of Instagram will be released next year, Mosseri wrote in a blog post announcing the changes.

Mariana Ruiz Firmat, executive director of nonprofit advocacy organization Kairos Action, said in an interview with The Verge that she remained skeptical of Instagram’s motives. “They don’t want to move young people off the platform,” Firmat said, “because they’re making so much money from young people on their platforms.”

Firmat added that she’s not encouraged by any of the new regulations Instagram announced Tuesday and doesn’t see the Take a Break feature as all that impressive. “They’re looking at young people as a primary target for their profit margin, so it’s hard to imagine they’re going to really change anything right now,” she said. “The platform is way too enticing and addictive to young users.”

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