WASHINGTON - Instagram's boss aimed to appease fuming US lawmakers Wednesday with a rosy view of the photo-sharing app's impact on teens, but they rejected his self-regulation proposal and signalled a rekindled push to clamp down on Big Tech.
Adam Mosseri argued the service could help struggling young people, despite documents leaked by a company insider raising worries of harms, including a 2019 study saying Instagram made one in three teenage girls feel worse when they were unhappy with their bodies.
"Sometimes young people can come to Instagram, dealing with difficult things in their lives. I believe that Instagram can help in those critical moments," Mosseri told a Senate commerce subcommittee, at the latest hearing probing how social media could be hurting teens.
His testimony came as the services run by Facebook parent Meta battle a crisis fueled by the company's own research, and which has refueled a years-old US push for regulation.
Mosseri proposed a social media industry body that would set best practices to help keep young people safe online, but got a frosty reception.
"That's self-regulation, that's status quo, and that just won't cut it," said Senator Ed Markey, a Big Tech critic. "We do need laws, we need laws passed by this body."
The years-old partisan deadlock in Washington appear to have eased relatively on social media regulation, at least when it comes protecting children from overuse, damage to their well-being and exposure to badly-intentioned adults.
"This is a case of too little, too late because now there is bipartisan momentum both here and in the House to tackle these problems we are seeing with Big Tech," said Senator Marsha Blackburn, referring to Instagram's safeguards.
- 'Underwhelming' -
Facebook has bounced back from other scandals like the one involving Cambridge Analytica, a British consulting firm that used the personal data of millions of Facebook users to target political ads.
In that case, CEO Mark Zuckerberg went to Washington to apologize, and the company agreed to a $5 billion settlement with US regulators.
However, the leading social media network faces at least one investigation spurred by the latest crisis: a consortium of US states announced in November a probe of Meta's techniques for enticing young users and the potential resulting harms.
Facing pressure, the company announced in September a "pause" in developing a version of Instagram for kids under 13 as criticism built over the platform's impact on young people's mental health.
Facebook has pushed back fiercely against a string of Wall Street Journal reports based on the leaked documents, and a subsequent series for a US media consortium, arguing its research was mischaracterized.
On the eve of Wednesday's hearing, Instagram announced new protections for young users like suggesting a break if they have been spending a lot of time on the platform.
The timing of the announcement drew a wary reception from lawmakers, who questioned whether it was an effort at distraction ahead of the hearing.
"The kinds of baby steps that you've suggested so far, very respectfully, are underwhelming. A nudge? A break?," Senator Richard Blumenthal told Mosseri, referring to Instagram's safety proposals.
"That ain't gonna save kids from the addictive effects... I think you will sense on this committee a pretty strong determination to do something well beyond what you've indicated," he added.