Whistleblower Says Meta Execs Knew Social Media Can Harm Kids
WASHINGTON — A whistleblower former employee of Meta Platforms Inc. told a Senate panel Tuesday that top executives of the social media giant knew their Facebook platform harmed young people but covered it up to avoid interfering with their profits.
He said he showed statistics to the corporate executives demonstrating teens and children often suffered depression after being subjected to online bullying, sexual solicitation and body shaming.
Some of them were driven to suicide, said Arturo Bejar, former director of engineering for Facebook’s Protect and Care program.
Awareness by Meta executives Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg and others of the harm to children showed, “It meant that they knew and they were not acting on it,” he said. “It is time for Congress to act.”
Senators on the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law used Bejar’s testimony as an example of why they want to pass the proposed Kids Online Safety Act.
The bill pending in the Senate seeks to protect minors from abuses on social media platforms. It authorizes state attorneys general to enforce it, such as through lawsuits.
The bill would require Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms to install settings and algorithms that restrict access to minors’ personal data and to give parents tools to control privacy settings for accounts used by their children.
Other provisions require social media to refrain from advertising to children for age-restricted products or services, such as cigarettes and online gambling. They also would have to report to the federal government annually on foreseeable risks of harm to minors from using their platforms.
Social media platforms, along with anti-censorship groups, oppose the kinds of restrictions found in the Kids Online Safety Act. They say the greater risk is that it would lead to increased government surveillance of online free speech and censorship of artists’ work.
As a result, more people would be driven away from the social interaction and easy access to information they find on the sites, according to critics of a government crackdown. They sometimes call themselves the “Don’t Delete Art” movement.
In the third quarter of this year, the number of Facebook users worldwide is about 3.05 billion. Use of the platform rose 0.63% from the previous quarter and 3.08% year over year.
Meta Platforms Inc., the parent company of Facebook, reported $116 billion in revenue last year. Most of it, or $113.6 billion, was generated by advertising.
The advertising rates depend on the number of Facebook users.
Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., said she doubted Facebook’s claims that it made sincere efforts to protect children from online information that might lead to mental depression.
“It has to be because they were motivated by profit,” Blackburn said.
The renewed effort in the Senate to clamp down on alleged abuses of social media is partly an outgrowth of a lawsuit filed against Meta by state attorneys general two weeks ago.
Forty-two state attorneys general sued Meta for allegedly endangering children with addictive features on its Facebook and Instagram media platforms.
The lawsuit says Meta designed its algorithms, alerts, notifications and infinite scroll features to keep kids using the media platforms longer and to return frequently. Other features, such as photo filters, promote the depression associated with body dysmorphia, the attorneys general say.
The lawsuits seek an injunction against Meta to halt the features they say hurt the mental health of kids as well as restitution and penalties.
During the Senate hearing Tuesday, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said Congress would have taken action previously to rein in Facebook and Instagram’s dominance of social media, but their huge lobbying effort always stopped legislative reforms.
“Big Tech is the big kid on the block when it comes to this issue,” Durbin said.
Meta released a statement after the lawsuit was filed saying, “We share the attorneys general’s commitment to providing teens with safe, positive experiences online, and have already introduced over 30 tools to support teens and their families.”