Facebook whistleblower asks Congress to act to protect teens, social media expert doubts progress

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MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) -- A former Facebook employee and whistleblower pleaded with lawmakers on Capitol Hill Tuesday, Oct. 5, to act against the social media network, claiming its policies are harmful especially to teens. But some experts doubt progress will occur.

Frances Haugen, a former Facebook product manager, sounded the alarm to lawmakers during her testimony before a Senate subcommittee that the social media giant is choosing to allow harmful content on its platform she called "disastrous" for kids and teens.  

"There is a broad swath of research that supports the idea that the usage of social media amplifies the risk for these mental health harms," said Haugen. "My fear is without action, divisive and extremist behaviors we see today are only the beginning." 

Her testimony comes after she leaked documents shedding light on the negative impact social media companies have on young people, a topic that experts have been concerned about for years.  

"I think this has quite a shocking revelation, and it's reiterated what a lot of us who have been studying social media have been warning people, often with no success, about some of the dangers that we've been right all along," said Steve Noll, professor of marketing who specializes in social media at Madison College.  

Noll said while it's encouraging Republican and Democratic lawmakers are united on taking action to stop the harms Facebook causes to teenagers, he doubts progress will be made because of lawmakers' ties to social media companies who rely on the platform for campaigning.  

"At the end of the day it's all about money, and these companies are incredibly profitable and valuable to politicians on both sides," Noll said. "It ultimately would hurt politicians' ability to use social media as tools for their next political campaign." 

Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul believes the outcome could be different. He joined a bipartisan coalition of 52 attorneys general all signing a letter expressing strong support for Congress to hold social media companies accountable.  

"We wanted to send a clear message this is something that has support from across the county, across the aisle, and hopefully we'll see more kinds of these investigations," said Kaul.  

Kaul added that he hopes these revelations will lead to more social media companies revising their policies in hopes to better protect young people from potentially harmful content.  

During the hearing, Haugen emphasized that she decided to come forward even though it puts her "at great personal risk," because she urged action after publishing a report showing Facebook was aware there were problems in its apps that negatively affects teens, especially girls. 

Some of the solutions Haugen offered include changing Facebook's algorithms to stop making posts that create more engagement. She also proposed changing the age to 17 to allow teens to sign up for an account, currently it's 13 years old.  

Facebook issued a statement after the hearing calling Haugen's claims "misleading," and stressed the app does more good than harm.  

"We don't agree with her characterization of the many issues she testified about. Despite all this, we agree on one thing; it's time to begin to create standard rules for the internet," Andy Stone, a spokesman, tweeted.  

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