Many hands holding phones

“You have blood on your hands.” Senate Committee calls for action by social media giants to protect children online

In an unusually emotional and unified setting, the Senate Judiciary Committee found common ground for the need to protect children online yesterday.

On January 31, 2024, the CEOs of the most widely used social media platforms appeared before the Committee. Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg, X’s Linda Yaccarino, TikTok’s Shou Chew, Snap’s Evan Spiegel, and Discord’s Jason Citron listened to accusations and answered questions about what they were doing to protect children using their platforms.

The main concerns about children on these platforms center around sexual abuse and mental health. The parents that were present in the room had direct experience of children with either or both issues, as the senators pointed out.

In his opening statement, Ranking Member Senator Lindsey Graham held Mark Zuckerberg and the other CEOs to immediate account:

“Mr. Zuckerberg, you and the companies before us, I know you don’t mean it to be so but you have blood on your hands. … You have a product that’s killing people.”

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg addressed the families of children who died as a result of online suffering:

“It’s terrible. No one should have to go through the things that your families have suffered. And this is why we invest so much and are going to continue doing industry-leading efforts to make sure that no one has to go through the things your families have had to suffer.”

In November 2023, a Meta whistleblower revealed some shocking numbers around children’s experiences of its platforms. He told Congress that his research showed that 13% of Instagram users younger than 16 were subjected to unwanted sexual advances in a given seven-day period.

In response to the Committee’s questions, the social media CEOs largely agreed upon hiding inappropriate content and some sort of age verification. More substantial were the promises of Snap and X, who both publicly endorsed a prominent bipartisan bill, the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA).

KOSA was introduced in February 2022 and aims to enhance children’s safety online. It is thought to be the child online safety bill with the best chance of passing Congress.

One of the main points of KOSA is to set up accountability for social media platforms to act in preventing and mitigating content that could harm minors. Such content includes the promotion of unlawful products for minors (e.g. gambling and alcohol), self-harm, substance abuse, eating disorders, sexual exploitation, and suicide.

We’ve heard from whistleblowers that algorithms are consistently used to prioritize the companies own profits over users’ health and safety. Those profits are large, as Senator Klobuchar pointed out:

“Social media platforms generated $11 billion in revenue in 2022 from advertising directed at children and teenagers, including nearly $2 billion in ad profits derived from users age 12 and under.”

In that light we see welcome steps forward, both with the promise made by TikTok to increase its investment in safety by $2 billion—although it was a bit vague—and X’s commitment to support the Strengthening Transparency and Obligations to Protect Children Suffering from Abuse and Mistreatment Act (STOP CSAM) — a bill giving child sexual exploitation victims the right to sue online platforms.

Unfortunately, legislative efforts at the national level have mostly failed, but state legislators have introduced more than 100 bills across the country that aim to regulate how children interact with social media.

We asked Oren Arar, Malwarebytes’ VP of Consumer Privacy how he felt about these developments.

“Recent congressional hearings highlight the efforts social media companies are making to mitigate these dangers. However, their business models do not primarily focus on safety, which often relegates such critical concerns to the back burner. Consequently, the onus of protection falls heavily on parents and guardians.

In an age where children gain access to social media and online platforms at an increasingly young age, the importance of safeguarding their privacy and security cannot be overstated. The virtual landscape, while offering numerous benefits, also harbors risks from malevolent actors who may disguise themselves as harmless peers. These risks are not solely external; they can also emanate from within a child’s own social circles in the form of cyberbullying.

To fortify our children against these virtual threats, a two-pronged approach is essential: relentless awareness and privacy-centric technology.

Awareness is pivotal. It necessitates ongoing, open conversations with our children to instill a deep-seated wariness of strangers online and to reinforce the dangers of in-person meetings with online acquaintances. Doubts and unusual encounters should be brought to an adult’s attention without hesitation. Vigilance through regular check-ins is imperative, not just to monitor online interactions but to detect any behavioral shifts that could signal cyberbullying. Immediate and supportive intervention is crucial to maintain a child’s sense of security and wellbeing.

While parental control tools might not be favored by all, the use of privacy-led technology is a substantial defense mechanism. Ensuring that social media accounts are locked down with robust privacy settings, particularly disabling automatic geolocation sharing, is a start. Strong, unique passwords and two-factor authentication add a layer of security to prevent unauthorized access. Advising children against sharing personal information and encouraging the use of VPNs can also significantly enhance their online privacy.”

Tips to keep your children safe online

To keep your children safe there are several things you can do up front.

  • Keep webcams covered when not in use.
  • Use parental controls and features like SafeSearch.
  • Familiarize yourself with the platform your child uses, so you know the options and pitfalls.
  • Look at the privacy settings of the device, the browser, and frequently used apps.
  • Be open in communication with your children and lead by example.

What you should teach your children:

  • Do not fill out personal information online. Pay special attention to not giving away your location.
  • Be careful who you share pictures with, especially when asked.
  • Steer away from threatening environments and private conversations with strangers.
  • Don’t let others use your device(s).
  • Ask a trusted grown-up whenever you’re worried about something.
  • Get permission before you install new apps.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Pieter Arntz

Malware Intelligence Researcher

Was a Microsoft MVP in consumer security for 12 years running. Can speak four languages. Smells of rich mahogany and leather-bound books.