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How to improve child safety on social media

Social media child protection is controversial. When social media set up rules to protect children they significantly rely on tools like parental controls in response to legislation and regulation. These tools have low levels of use and efficacy. There is a risk of over-reliance on such measures to the exclusion of other changes, according to a report from London School of Economics (LSE) that covers actions taken by Meta, Google, TikTok and Snap.

The report says it is new legislation and regulations that drive social media companies to make major child safety and privacy changes. The report was  launched in the UK House of Lords and is written by researchers at LSE. 

The EU is home to 80 million children. Referring to “the alarming statistics of child abuse, violence, and neglect across Europe” the EU Commission recently issued a Recommendation to support EU countries in developing and strengthening child protection systems.

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It calls on authorities at all levels of governance and civil society across all sectors to work together to protect children from violence in a coherent and systemic way. 

The recommendation is part of the EU’s commitment in the EU Strategy on the Rights of the Child. 

It also echoes the views of more than 1,000 children collected through the new EU Children’s Participation Platform, the Commission says.

 The Commission recently said Meta’s  Facebook and Instagram, may “exploit the weaknesses and inexperience of minors”.

The Commission is concerned that the systems of both Facebook and Instagram, including their algorithms, may stimulate behavioural addictions in children, as well as create so-called ‘rabbit-hole effects’. In addition, the Commission is also concerned about age-assurance and verification methods put in place by Meta

The LSE report says a significant proportion (63) of the changes made by the four companies between 2017- 2024 were made in the ‘in default’ category. This is where changes are made to the design of a service, providing default protections. For example, in July 2021, Instagram changed their default settings so that everyone under 16 (or under 18 in certain countries) is defaulted into a private account whenever they join.

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The introduction of privacy and safety tools was the second most popular area of change (37 of the 128 changes). Tools provide new mechanisms for users or parents to control how certain platform features work. For example, in 2021 TikTok introduced a ‘filter all comments’ feature and in 2022 Instagram announced a tool allowing users to see their feeds in chronological order.

“However, despite the positive steps made, the report reveals companies are significantly relying on tools such as parental controls in response to legislation and regulation. Evidence indicates these measures have low levels of use and efficacy.”  

The LSE researchers have recommendations to improve child safety legislation and regulations and ensure children are better protected online. 

These include requiring companies to work across industry to introduce best practice rather than working separately; for regulators to publish their expectations of good practice; and for the introduction of mandatory access to data for child safety research with child safety changes being recorded and logged transparently.

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