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Senator's office posed as a girl on fake Instagram account to study app's effect

Blumenthal revealed news of the fake account during a hearing at which senators grilled a Facebook official on Instagram's impact on teen mental health.
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Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said his office had created a fake Instagram account to pose as a 13-year-old girl to research what the app is like for teens and how it could potentially affect their mental health.

"Our research has shown, in real time, Instagram's recommendations will still latch on to a person's insecurities, a young woman's vulnerabilities about their bodies and drag them into dark places that glorify eating disorders and self-harm," Blumenthal said during a Senate hearing Thursday titled “Protecting Kids Online: Facebook, Instagram, & Mental Health Harms."

"That's what Instagram does," the senator said.

Posing as the teenage girl, his office followed "easily findable" accounts that create content related to disordered eating and dieting, Blumenthal said. Within a day of creating the account, he said the platform began serving the fake account, known as a Finsta, content promoting eating disorders and self-harm.

A spokesperson for Instagram did not immediately respond to a request for comment about Blumenthal's claims.

The bipartisan hearing, held jointly by Blumenthal and Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., came on the heels of a recent Wall Street Journal report about how Facebook, which owns Instagram, knows from its own research that Instagram is harmful to a significant percentage of teenagers.

According to a presentation from Facebook, obtained by the Journal, "teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression."

“Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse,” the Facebook researchers reportedly wrote in their findings.

Senators grilled Antigone Davis, global head of safety at Facebook, over the findings of the Journal report, among other safety topics at Thursday's hearing.

In her opening statement, Davis said the company's research "found that more teenage girls found Instagram helpful than not." She went on to describe the research published in the Journal as "not bombshell research."

“We strongly disagree with how this reporting characterized our work,” Davis said.

At one point, Blumenthal asked Davis if the platform will "commit to ending Finsta," a moment which went viral because, as Davis explained, "Finsta" is slang for a fake account — not an official Instagram product or service.

Experts say that social media has become intrinsically tied to how many young people see and value themselves, and young women are particularly vulnerable.

“Self-esteem and confidence, we know that this is an issue, especially with teenage girls," Phyllis Alongi, the former clinical director for the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide, told NBC News in a recent interview.

One concern among some parents and lawmakers has been Instagram's recent efforts to develop a specific platform for children under 12 called Instagram Kids. On Monday, Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, told NBC's "TODAY" show that the company had paused development of the platform.

"I still firmly believe that it’s a good thing to build a version of Instagram that’s designed to be safe for tweens, but we want to take the time to talk to parents and researchers and safety experts and get to more consensus about how to move forward,” Mosseri said. “If anybody leaves using Instagram feeling worse about themselves, that’s an important issue we need to take seriously and that we need to figure out how to address.”

Mosseri added that the company believes it would be healthier for young people to have a version of the app designed specifically for them that their parents could decide whether or not they use.

He added that the company was already working on app features that would address body image issues brought up in the Journal report, including nudging users to look at other content or take a break if they've been looking at one particular topic for too long.