At a Senate hearing, a Meta whistleblower has revealed some shocking numbers around children’s experiences of its platforms.
Arturo Béjar, a former engineering director at Meta, testified before the US Congress on Tuesday. Not only did he share his own daughters’ experience suffering harassment on Instagram, he also shared some statistics.
“13% of Instagram users under the age of 16 had received unwanted sexual advances on the platform in the previous 7 days.”
His own daughter received unsolicited pictures of male strangers’ privates on the platform. She reported them without ever receiving a response that indicated Meta would take appropriate action.
In a conversation with chief product officer Chris Cox, Béjar learned Meta was already aware of the statistics related to the harm done to teens.
Béjar is not the first Meta whistleblower to voice his concerns about Meta’s unwillingness to put the wellbeing of its users before the bottom line. On October 5, 2021, Frances Haugen told a Senate panel Tuesday that Congress must intervene to solve the “crisis” created by her former employer’s products.
Haugen, a former Facebook product manager for civic misinformation, stated that by design the Facebook algorithm is consistently used to prioritize the company’s own profits over users’ health and safety. As an example she explained how the algorithm, in its drive towards more profitable content, could steer young users from something relatively innocuous such as healthy recipes to content promoting anorexia in a short period of time.
Béjar previously worked as an engineering director at Facebook from 2009 to 2015, gaining recognition for his efforts to combat cyberbullying. Later he worked as a Meta consultant. In this capacity, his team at Meta created “Bad Emotional Experience Feedback” (BEEF) a recurring survey of 238,00 users’ experiences in the previous week.
Other statistics from these surveys raised concerns as well. Of the 13—15 year-olds on Instagram that filled out the survey, 26% said they had witnessed discrimination based on various identities and 21% felt worse about themselves due to others’ posts on Instagram.
Meta on the other hand issued a statement saying it’s working hard to keep minors safe.
“The issues raised here regarding user perception surveys highlight one part of this effort, and surveys like these have led us to create features like anonymous notifications of potentially hurtful content and comment warnings.”
Meta has rolled out some 30 parental controls to manage who children can talk to or how much time they spend on Facebook and Instagram. In an earlier statement, Meta said it has strict policies and technology to prevent predators from finding or interacting with teenagers on its apps.
“We’re continuously exploring ways to actively defend against this behavior, and we set up an internal task force to investigate these claims and immediately address them.”
Despite these promises, Béjar’s statements have reinforced in some senators the need for the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA), to ensure that companies like Meta have a duty of care to the young people that drive their record profits.
KOSA is a bill that was introduced in the United States Senate in February 2022 and reintroduced in May 2023, The bill establishes guidelines meant to protect children on social media platforms. Criticism of the bill mostly points out that it might potentially enable censorship and increased online surveillance.
Nevertheless, this testimony and others may be the cause of dramatic changes to how kids use social media. Reportedly, a group of 42 US attorneys general already announced they are suing Meta Platforms Inc. for harms they say Instagram and Facebook are perpetrating on young people.
Instagram has already been fined €405 million after European Union privacy regulators came to a decision on a long-running complaint related to how the social media platform handles children’s data.
We are pretty confident that these are not the last fines and lawsuits Meta will face, but whether they will help to keep our children safe from predators remains to be seen. We will keep an eye on this.
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