Antigone Davis, Facebook’s global head of safety, faced harsh questioning on Capitol Hill on Thursday about Instagram’s effect on teenagers, addressing accusations that Facebook has known for years that its photo-sharing app has caused mental and emotional harm.
Members of the Senate’s consumer protection subcommittee admonished Ms. Davis and Facebook for withholding internal information about how its services adversely affect young people and for not significantly changing those services to reduce those downsides.
“It has hidden its own research on addiction and the toxic effects of its products,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, the chairman of the subcommittee and a Democrat of Connecticut. “It has attempted to deceive the public and us in Congress about what it knows, and it has weaponized childhood vulnerabilities against children themselves. It’s chosen growth over children’s mental health and well-being, greed over preventing the suffering of children.”
Lawmakers called for regulations to rein in the Facebook, saying repeated scandals on safety, data privacy abuses and misinformation have created a trust deficit.
“You’ve lost trust, and we do not trust you with influencing our children,” said Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, the ranking Republican on the subcommittee.
The hearing was the first of two on Facebook’s harmful effect on children. The second, on Tuesday, will be with a whistle-blower who has shared documents on Facebook’s research on teenagers.
The hearings were called after The Wall Street Journal published a series of articles this month about internal research at Facebook. One of the articles reported that, according to Facebook’s findings, one in three teenagers said Instagram made his or her body image issues worse. Among teenagers who had suicidal thoughts, 13 percent of British users and 6 percent of American users said they could trace those thoughts to Instagram.
On Wednesday evening, Facebook released two slide decks from the research cited by The Journal. The company heavily annotated the slides, at times disputing or reframing the accuracy and intention of the research report. The company said in its slides that many teenagers reported positive experiences on Instagram, including that the app at times helped with mental health.
Lawmakers said the documents were only a small part of the internal Facebook research they had seen on Instagram and teenagers. The company appeared to be cherry-picking data to suit its messaging, Mr. Blumenthal said.
“To be very blunt, it is more concealment and deception,” Mr. Blumenthal said in an interview before the hearing. “I am increasingly convinced that they are incapable of holding themselves accountable, and therefore the public, either through users or the Congress, has to impose accountability.”
The research appears to contradict public statements by Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, and the executive in charge of Instagram, Adam Mosseri. Both have long downplayed warnings that Instagram — through filters that can enhance images and a “like” button that can be used as a gauge of popularity — created a fraught environment for young users and made many teenagers feel worse about themselves.
This week, Mr. Mosseri announced that Facebook would pause plans to release a version of Instagram aimed at children in elementary and middle school.
Mr. Mosseri has argued that The Journal’s article on Instagram took research out of context, and said the number of teenagers in the study was “quite small.” He has said many teenagers report positive experiences on Instagram.
Ms. Davis, who has led safety at Facebook for seven years, is expected to reiterate that message in the hearing. The company has defended the idea of an app for children, like YouTube Kids, saying it could provide stronger safety and privacy features for young children than the main Instagram app.