Senators concerned eating disorders are promoted on social media, pen letter to Facebook

US & World

This picture taken on October 5, 2020 in Toulouse, southwestern France, shows logos of US social networks Facebook and Instagram on the screens of a tablet and a mobile phone. (Photo by Lionel BONAVENTURE / AFP) (Photo by LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP via Getty Images)

WASHINGTON, D.C. (WOWK) – A group of U.S. Senators has sent a letter to Facebook to express their concern the social media site Instagram may promote eating disorders among its younger users.

U.S. Senators Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV.), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) say their concerns come from the testimony Facebook Whistleblower Frances Haugen gave to the Senate Commerce Committee. They highlighted that during that testimony, Haugen said she believes “Facebook knows they are leading young users to anorexia content.” The senators say they are worried about the impact of this allegation, specifically on teenagers and girls.

“Ms. Haugen’s complaints to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) also indicate that Facebook has additional information about its impact on eating disorders that Facebook has not shared with policymakers, parents, or the public,” the senators said.

Senators Capito, Klobuchar, and Baldwin are advocates for ensuring Americans can access treatment services for eating disorders. The three senators have also cosponsored the bipartisan Anna Westin Act. That bill was introduced in 2015 and included provisions to increase training and education on eating disorders and ensure parity for insurance coverage of residential treatment of eating disorders. The provisions of the bill were signed into law as part of the 21st Century Cures Act in 2016.

Capito’s office says the Anna Westin Act was named in honor of Anna Westin of Minnesota. She was diagnosed with anorexia at the age of 16. Although Anna’s condition was considered urgent, her family was told they had to wait for their insurance company to “certify” her treatment, which delayed and limited the treatment she received. She died at the age of 21 after struggling with the disease for five years.

“The stakes here are incredibly high — studies have found that eating disorders have one of the highest mortality rates of any mental illness. We have long fought to ensure Americans can access treatment services for eating disorders, but more must be done to protect our kids from being exposed to content on Facebook and Instagram that glorifies and promotes eating disorders,” the senators said in the letter.

The senators said in the letter they were requesting a response by Oct. 27, 2021.

Below is a copy of the full letter:

Dear Mr. Zuckerberg and Mr. Mosseri:

We write to express our concern about the dangers of Instagram, especially for young people who suffer from eating disorders. Instagram has broad reach among teenage women and girls, meaning that harmful content posted to its platform can be especially dangerous.

We are well aware of the dangers of these diseases. The three of us were the leaders of the Anna Westin Act, a bill that was signed into law in December 2016 and increased training and education on eating disorders and ensured parity for insurance coverage of residential treatment of eating disorders.

In her testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee, Frances Haugen told us that “Facebook knows that they are leading young users to anorexia content.” Other efforts found that Instagram not only failed to take action on accounts that promote eating disorders, but that the platform actively promoted them. Thanks to the whistleblower’s disclosures and testimony, we know that internal Facebook research documented that Instagram makes eating issues worse for 17% of teen girls who use the platform.

Ms. Haugen has stated that Facebook’s own research says that Instagram is “distinctly worse than other forms of social media” in its harms to teenagers. Teens are uniquely vulnerable to this kind of harmful content, and studies indicate eating disorders often begin in the early teens and twenties. Ms. Haugen’s complaints to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) also indicate Facebook has additional information about its impact on eating disorders that Facebook has not shared with policymakers, parents, or the public.

The stakes here are incredibly high — studies have found that eating disorders have one of the highest mortality rates of any mental illness. We have long fought to ensure Americans can access treatment services for eating disorders, but more must be done to protect our kids from being exposed to content on Facebook and Instagram that glorifies and promotes eating disorders.

We ask that you answer the following questions by October 27, 2021:

1.     What measures, both automated and manual, do you employ on Instagram to detect accounts or content that promote unhealthy eating and other eating disorders?

2.     How many Instagram accounts have you removed in the last year for promoting unhealthy eating habits?

3.     How many Instagram users do you estimate have seen content promoting unhealthy eating in the last year? Please provide estimates for both all users and separately for teenage or younger users.

4.     What resources do you offer to Instagram users who were shown harmful content promoting unhealthy eating?

5.     Please describe any additional information you have collected about the relationship between any of your apps and eating disorders affecting your users. This includes any academic research, market studies, informal studies, user interviews, surveys, strategy documents, or other documents.

6.     Facebook’s internal research found that teens self-report “inappropriate advertisements targeted to vulnerable groups” as one of Instagram’s harms.

·       What are the top 100 advertisements seen by teenage users of Instagram in the last year?

·       For each advertisement, please describe the content of the advertisement, including any videos, pictures, and text included in the advertisement, as well as data about the reach and viewership of the advertisement.

Letter to Facebook from U.S. Senators Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV.), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI)

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