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Instagram CEO to testify at Senate hearing on potential dangers for young users

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Today, the head of Instagram faces questions before a Senate committee. Adam Mosseri is certain to be asked about Instagram's effect on young people's mental health, and one day before facing those questions, he announced new safety features.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ADAM MOSSERI: We're always looking for more ways to give people control over the experience, to shape it into what's best for them, in addition to continuing our work on safety.

INSKEEP: The service will now advise people to take a break if they're scrolling mindlessly too long. Instagram is also promising new parental control features to come. We should disclose that Instagram's parent company, Meta, formerly Facebook, pays NPR to license some NPR content. We still cover them like any company. And we've now called the leaders of the Senate committee that will question Instagram, Democrat Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Republican Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee. Senators, welcome to you both. Good morning.

RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: Good morning. Thank you.

MARSHA BLACKBURN: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Senator Blackburn, I want to start with you. Are you satisfied with Instagram's announcement yesterday?

BLACKBURN: Oh, no, I was not satisfied. These are half measures. They're a little bit too late. There is no process for how these are going to be implemented, what the connection will be to parents or how they're going to implement transparency. What we do know is the social media platforms will continue to push the envelope as far as they possibly can until we in Congress slap their hand and pull them back. So we know they're trying to forestall legislation, but that is not going to stop or deter us.

INSKEEP: Senator Blumenthal.

BLUMENTHAL: I agree completely with Senator Blackburn that these baby steps are designed more to distract on the eve of our hearing than propose real action. And I'm very encouraged by the working relationship that Senator Blackburn and I have developed in seeking real reform through congressional action - for example, real transparency for these algorithms, the black box devices that drive more destructive, toxic, addictive content to kids and, of course, more privacy, updating the privacy protection laws that Senator Markey has championed. More power and more effective tools to parents are necessary and more accountability - in fact, reforming this section of law called Section 230, which right now gives Big Tech platforms near complete immunity from any accountability to people who are harmed.

So I think we're moving forward in the right direction, and the American people are rightly outraged by what they've heard about Big Tech profiting from the eating disorders, suicidal ideations, bullying, self-harm, all driven to kids.

INSKEEP: A couple of follow-ups there. Senator Blackburn, you indicated that you think Instagram - and, therefore, the parent company Meta - wants to avoid federal regulation. They publicly say the opposite. Executives have been on this program saying, we want to be regulated; please regulate us. They seem to want some predictability and, in effect, some protections, some red lines that they know if they stay within the red lines, they're OK. In your conversations with Facebook or Meta executives, have you not found them receptive to regulation?

BLACKBURN: It is so interesting. They have fought regulation for years. In 2012, I started proposing privacy and data security legislation, and they have fought it every step of the way. Now that Senator Blumenthal and I are in the process of drafting and bringing forward legislation for privacy, children's privacy, data security and Section 230 reforms, all of a sudden they're saying, oh, we want to have regulation. What they're really saying is, look; we want regulation that is going to stifle competition so that we control the marketplace because all of this content they continue to push forward, which creates self-harm for children - or encourages self-harm for children, which encourages some of the activities and the mental health concerns that parents and teachers and pediatricians continue to bring up, what they do is to monetize the data that they're getting from this. When children are online, unfortunately, for these social media companies they are the product. And this is how they're making the big bucks that they are making.

INSKEEP: I think there's no doubt that they are the product, simply because you've got a business that works through advertising.

BLACKBURN: Right.

INSKEEP: And so, of course, it delivers viewers to advertisers. But with that said, let me ask you both if you're convinced by the case against Meta, Facebook, Instagram - whatever we're talking about here - because they will say, we're just reflecting problems in society; we are not creating problems in society. Senator Blumenthal.

BLUMENTHAL: There's no question that society is more complicated and challenging for young people than ever before, but driving destructive content to children, aggravating and exacerbating their problems, creating what their own researchers said is a perfect storm by their spiraling into eating disorders and self-harm, more of these destructive content means more eyeballs, more advertising, more dollars. And...

INSKEEP: Although their own researchers have also said - if you'll forgive me - have also said - their own executives, anyway, have said, look; these leaked documents show very small samples, very small amounts of research. Is there a part of this case that's not proven?

BLUMENTHAL: What we have shown in experiments that we've done - frankly, the media have done - is that particularly young girls are driven down these rabbit holes. But keep in mind - Steve, you are absolutely right. They talk a good game. They say they want regulation. But they have fought it with armies of lawyers and lobbyists and tons of campaign contributions. And no doubt they'll do it again. But I'll tell you what has changed. The American people are really outraged. Senator Blackburn and I, literally every time we go home, encounter parents and caregivers who say that they are horrified by what they have heard. A father from Connecticut who wrote to me about his daughter who developed severe anxiety in high school because of constant pressure from Instagram, that pressure became severe enough - in effect, it followed her home. It followed her everywhere she went. And then she attempted to commit suicide. These stories are so powerful I think they will help us carry the day.

INSKEEP: Senator Blackburn, I'm going to give you the last word. We've got about a minute left. Are the problems severe enough that you would begin to approach this the way a lot of people approach tobacco? It's not something to be used carefully. It's not - rather something to be avoided entirely.

BLACKBURN: It is. The tobacco lawsuits are something that people refer to many times. Now, I do think that what we have to do is say, there is a responsibility that you all have to the community, all of you big tech companies. What they have done is to create an environment that encourages this activity from children - the length of time they stay online, the pressure they feel online, the adverse content that they see online. And what we know is there needs to be a safer place. If these companies cannot police themselves, we will pass the laws that give them the guide rails the penalties and the enforcements that are necessary for a safe marketplace.

INSKEEP: Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut - thanks to you both.

BLUMENTHAL: Thank you.

BLACKBURN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.