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Snapchat and Other Social Media Platforms Offer Parental Control Features, but Do They Offer Enough Safety?

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As concerns about social media’s harmful effects on teens continue to rise, platforms from Snapchat to TikTok to Instagram are bolting on new features they say will make their services safer and more age appropriate. But the changes rarely address the elephant in the the room — the algorithms pushing endless content that can drag anyone, not just teens, into harmful rabbit holes.

The tools do offer some help, such as blocking strangers from messaging kids. But they also share some deeper flaws, starting with the fact that teenagers can get around limits if they lie about their age. The platforms also place the burden of enforcement on parents. And they do little or nothing to screen for inappropriate and harmful material served up by algorithms that can affect teens’ mental and physical well-being.

“These platforms know that their algorithms can sometimes be amplifying harmful content, and they’re not taking steps to stop that,” said Irene Ly, privacy counsel at the nonprofit Common Sense Media. The more teens keep scrolling, the more engaged they get — and the more engaged they are, the more profitable they are to the platforms, she said. “I don’t think they have too much incentive to be changing that.”

Take, for instance, Snapchat, which on Tuesday introduced new parental controls in what it calls the “Family Center” — a tool that lets parents see who their teens are messaging, though not the content of the messages themselves. One catch: both parents and their children have to opt into to the service.

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Nona Farahnik Yadegar, Snap’s director of platform policy and social impact, likens it to parents wanting to know who their kids are going out with.

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If kids are headed out to a friend’s house or are meeting up at the mall, she said, parents will typically ask, “Hey, who are you going to meet up with? How do you know them?” The new tool, she said, aims to give parents ”the insight they really want to have in order to have these conversations with their teen while preserving teen privacy and autonomy.”

These conversations, experts agree, are important. In an ideal world, parents would regularly sit down with their kids and have honest talks about social media and the dangers and pitfalls of the online world.

But many kids use a bewildering variety of platforms, all of which are constantly evolving — and that stacks the odds against parents expected to master and monitor the controls on multiple platforms, said Josh Golin, executive director of children’s digital advocacy group Fairplay.

“Far better to require platforms to make their platforms safer by design and default instead of increasing the workload on already overburdened parents,” he said.

The new controls, Golin said, also fail to address a myriad of existing problems with Snapchat. These range from kids misrepresenting their ages to “compulsive use” encouraged by the app’s Snapstreak feature to cyberbullying made easier by the disappearing messages that still serve as Snapchat’s claim to fame.

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Farahnik Yadegar said Snapchat has “strong measures” to deter kids from falsely claiming to be over 13. Those caught lying about their age have their account immediately deleted, she said. Teens who are over 13 but pretend to be even older get one chance to correct their age.

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Detecting such lies isn’t foolproof, but the platforms have several ways to get at the truth. For instance, if a user’s friends are mostly in their early teens, it’s likely that the user is also a teenager, even if they said they were born in 1968 when they signed up. Companies use artificial intelligence to look for age mismatches. A person’s interests might also reveal their real age. And, Farahnik Yadegar pointed out, parents might also find out their kids were fibbing about their birth date if they try to turn on parental controls but find their teens ineligible.

Child safety and teen mental health are front and centre in both Democratic and Republicans critiques of tech companies. States, which have been much more aggressive about regulating technology companies than the federal government, are also turning their attention to the matter. In March, several state attorneys general launched a nationwide investigation into TikTok and its possible harmful effects on young users’ mental health.

TikTok is the most popular social app US teenagers use, according to a new report out Wednesday from the Pew Research Center, which found that 67 percent say they use the Chinese-owned video sharing platform. The company has said that it focuses on age-appropriate experiences, noting that some features, such as direct messaging, are not available to younger users. It says features such as a screen-time management tool help young people and parents moderate how long children spend on the app and what they see. But critics note such controls are leaky at best.

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“It’s really easy for kids to try to get past these features and just go off on their own,” said Ly of Common Sense Media.

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Instagram, which is owned by Facebook parent Meta, is the second most popular app with teens, Pew found, with 62 percent saying they use it, followed by Snapchat with 59 percent. Not surprisingly, only 32 percent of teens reported ever having used Facebook, down from 71 percent in 2014 and 2015, according to the report.

Last fall, former Facebook employee-turned whistleblower Frances Haugen exposed internal research from the company concluding that the social network’s attention-seeking algorithms contributed to mental health and emotional problems among Instagram-using teens, especially girls. That revelation led to some changes; Meta, for instance, scrapped plans for an Instagram version aimed at kids under 13. The company has also introduced new parental control and teen well-being features, such as nudging teens to take a break if they scroll for too long.

Such solutions, Ly said, are “sort of getting at the problem, but basically going around it and not getting to the root cause of it.”


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US Senate Panel Approves Bill Empowering News Organisations to Negotiate With Facebook, Google for Revenue

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The US Senate Judiciary Committee voted Thursday to approve a bill aimed at allowing news organizations to band together to negotiate with Alphabet’s Google and Meta’s Facebook and win more revenue.

The bill passed the committee by a vote of 15 to 7, according to a congressional aide. It must now go to the Senate for their approval. A similar bill is before the US House of Representatives.

The bill is aimed at giving news and broadcast organisations more clout after years of criticism that big tech companies use their content to attract traffic and ad revenue without fairly compensating the publishers, many of which struggle financially.

The bill, led by Democrat Amy Klobuchar, attracted some Republican support, with Senators John Kennedy and Lindsey Graham sponsoring it. Other Democrats, like Senator Alex Padilla, expressed reservations about it.

The bill hit a speed bump earlier this month when Senator Ted Cruz won backing for a plan to include provisions to address what he considers the platforms stifling conservative voices.

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On Thursday Klobuchar won support for an amendment that specified that prices for use of content was the issue.

“The goal of the bill is to allow local news organisations to get compensation when major titans, monopolies like Facebook and Google, access their content,” she said at a committee session to vote on the bill.

Unlike other bills aimed at reining in big tech, some progressive groups oppose this measure, including Public Knowledge, on the grounds that it favors big broadcasters like News Corp, Sinclair, and Comcast/NBCU.

Also opposing the bill are two technology industry trade groups that Facebook and Google belong to: the Computer & Communications Industry Association and NetChoice.

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© Thomson Reuters 2022

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Buying an affordable 5G smartphone today usually means you will end up paying a “5G tax”. What does that mean for those looking to get access to 5G networks as soon as they launch? Find out on this week’s episode. Orbital is available on Spotify, Gaana, JioSaavn, Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music and wherever you get your podcasts.

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WhatsApp Working to Keep Iranians Connected Amid Widespread Internet Shutdown Over Nationwide Protests

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Meta Platforms’ WhatsApp said on Thursday that it was working to keep users in Iran connected after the country restricted access to the app and social media platform Instagram.

WhatsApp “will do anything” within its technical capacity to keep the service accessible and that it was not blocking Iranian phone numbers, the messaging service said in a tweet.

We exist to connect the world privately. We stand with the rights of people to access private messaging. We are not blocking Iranian numbers. We are working to keep our Iranian friends connected and will do anything within our technical capacity to keep our service up and running

— WhatsApp (@WhatsApp) September 22, 2022

Iran on Wednesday restricted access to Instagram and WhatsApp, two of the last remaining social networks in the country, amid protests over the death of a woman in police custody, according to residents and internet watchdog NetBlocks.

Last week’s death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was arrested by morality police in Tehran for “unsuitable attire”, has unleashed anger over issues including freedom in the Islamic Republic and an economy reeling from sanctions.

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Protesters in Tehran and other Iranian cities torched police stations and vehicles earlier on Thursday as public outrage over the death showed no signs of abating, with reports of security forces coming under attack.

On Thursday, the Associated Press reported that the country had imposed a near-total Internet blackout on Wednesday on the fifth day of protests against the government over Amini’s death, after she was held by the country’s morality police for allegedly violating its strictly-enforced dress code.

Previously, a government official had hinted that security concerns might prompt measures to restrict internet access. As previously mentioned, Instagram and WhatsApp were the last major social media networks operating in Iran.

The country currently blocks Facebook, Telegram, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and WhatsApp. However, top Iranian officials have access to public accounts on these platforms, while Iranians are able to access these services using virtual private networks and proxies, according to the report.

© Thomson Reuters 2022

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Buying an affordable 5G smartphone today usually means you will end up paying a “5G tax”. What does that mean for those looking to get access to 5G networks as soon as they launch? Find out on this week’s episode. Orbital is available on Spotify, Gaana, JioSaavn, Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music and wherever you get your podcasts.

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Facebook Whistleblower Frances Haugen Launches ‘Beyond the Screen’ Organisation to Tackle Social Media Harms

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Whistleblower Frances Haugen – a former Facebook engineer who leaked documents suggesting the firm put profits before safety – on Thursday launched an organisation devoted to fighting harm caused by social media.

The new Beyond the Screen nonprofit said that its first project will be to document ways big tech is failing in its “legal and ethical obligations to society” and help come up with ways to solve those problems.

“We can have social media that brings out the best in us, and that’s what Beyond the Screen is working toward,” Haugen said in a statement.

“Beyond the Screen will focus on tangible solutions to help users gain control of our social media experience.”

Haugen last year leaked reams of internal studies showing executives knew of their site’s potential for harm, prompting a renewed US push for regulation.

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Haugen contended the tech titan, which has since rebranded itself as Meta, put profits over safety. Meta has fought back against the accusation.

Haugen’s nonprofit said it will collaborate with groups including Common Sense Media and Project Liberty that share a “commitment to supporting healthier social media.”

Beyond the Screen’s first project “represents a bold, inclusive, and much-needed effort to drive a seismic shift in how social media operates,” Project Liberty founder Frank McCourt said, according to Beyond the Screen’s statement.

“We look forward to working with Frances and her team to launch this new initiative and advance our shared goal of enabling healthier digital communities and stopping harmful business models.”

Since leaving Facebook in 2021, Haugen has advocated in the US and other countries for legislation meant to make social media platforms safer, particularly for young people.

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Buying an affordable 5G smartphone today usually means you will end up paying a “5G tax”. What does that mean for those looking to get access to 5G networks as soon as they launch? Find out on this week’s episode. Orbital is available on Spotify, Gaana, JioSaavn, Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music and wherever you get your podcasts.

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