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Classroom Technology

Under Fire From Lawsuits, Meta Looks to Make It Harder for Teens to See Harmful Content

By Alyson Klein — January 09, 2024 4 min read
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Meta, the social media giant behind Instagram and Facebook, is making it harder for teenagers to view content on its platforms that is related to self-harm, suicide, nudity, or eating disorders, even if it’s posted by someone they follow.

The changes—announced Jan. 9—come as the company faces multiple lawsuits from states and school districts claiming that Meta knowingly ignored the negative impact of its platforms on children’s mental health.

Educators have demanded that Meta and other companies do more to mitigate the damage they believe Facebook, Instagram, and other platforms have done to students’ emotional well-being—or at the very least, acknowledge that their apps have contributed to teens’ mental health problems.

Meta did not address those concerns directly. But in explaining the changes, the company said it regularly “consults with experts in adolescent development, psychology, and mental health to help make our platforms safe and age-appropriate for young people,” according to a statement posted on Meta’s website.

In the past, teens could read posts from friends and even strangers contemplating suicide or threatening self-harm. Now, if someone posts about those topics, anyone under 18 who follows them would not see the content, Meta explained.

While posts about mental health “can help destigmatize these issues, it’s a complex topic and isn’t necessarily suitable for all young people,” Meta explained.

‘Merely a Band-Aid to distract from a huge underlying problem’

The changes won’t do nearly enough to help protect students from potentially damaging posts, said James Steyer, the founder and CEO of Common Sense, a nonprofit advocacy and research organization that explores the impact of technology on youth.

“These so-called ‘protections’ are nothing but a short-term fix, merely a Band-Aid to distract from a huge underlying problem that social media apps like Instagram are not a safe place for children and teens,” he says in a statement.

The changes are “an awesome first step” but leave far too many potential problems unaddressed, said Beth Houf, the principal of Capital City High School in Jefferson City, Mo., and a former National Association of Secondary Schools Principals Principal of the Year.

While it is positive that it will be harder for students to be exposed to posts about issues like self-harm, “there’s so many other pieces of content that are just as harmful,” Houf said, including Instagram pages used to spread unfounded, anonymous gossip.

“Students just roast each other,” she said. Houf also worries that students don’t have to do much to see whatever content they want—they can always lie about their age.

What’s more, Houf has alerted Meta to posts that she thinks are harmful—hacked accounts, hate speech, sexual content, students’ personal information leaked online. But the company has been slow to respond, she said.

Meta did not respond to a request for comment before deadline.

Meta will also default anyone under the age of 18 to its most restrictive settings for content control, making it more difficult for teens to encounter “sensitive” posts, and regularly remind teens to update their privacy settings. The changes will be fully implemented on Facebook and Instagram over the “coming months,” Meta said.

Steyer pointed to Meta’s decision to continue “putting the onus on teens to navigate their own privacy” as irresponsible.

“They state that content will be blocked if it ‘breaks their rules’ but how can the public possibly trust them to establish adequate rules when they’ve broken our trust and hurt our kids time and time again?” Steyer says in his statement.

‘Teenagers feel bad when they use Instagram but can’t stop’

Recently, states and school districts have brought their concerns about social media to a new arena: the courts.

Last fall, 33 states banded together to sue Meta, saying it is consciously harming children’s mental health, including by creating visual filters it knows can cause body dysmorphia. An additional eight states, plus the District of Columbia, are pursuing lawsuits in their own states over similar issues.

Also last year, several school districts—including Seattle, Arizona’s Mesa Public Schools, and New Jersey’s Irvington Public Schools—took the extraordinary step of suing Meta and other social media companies over the harm their products allegedly cause.

Experts say their cases may be bolstered by reports that Meta willfully ignored its own research on the harm its platforms caused.

Thousands of pages of documents released in 2021 by a whistleblower show Meta conducted extensive research on the negative impact of its platforms on children’s mental health and the spread of false information but failed to act on any of those findings.

The company ignored the information because acting would have been against its business interests, Frances Haugen, the whistleblower, a former Facebook product manager, said in testifying before Congress in October of that year.

“Facebook understands that if they want to continue to grow, they have to find new users, they have to make sure that that next generation is just as engaged on Instagram as the current one,” Haugen told members of Congress. “And the way they’ll do that is by making sure that children establish habits before they have good self-regulation … It’s just like cigarettes. [Teenagers] say they feel bad when they use Instagram but can’t stop.”

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