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May 16, 2024, 3:43pm EDT
Europe
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Semafor Signals

EU probes Meta’s role in making Facebook, Instagram addictive for children

Insights from MIT Technology Review, The Verge, Fortune

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REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration
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The News

The European Commission is formally investigating Meta to establish whether the design and algorithms used by Instagram and Facebook are addictive for children, regulators announced Thursday.

The investigation comes under the auspices of the Digital Services Act, a law passed in 2022 that requires online platforms to have strict child safety measures. In a statement, the Commission said Meta’s products may “exploit the weakness and inexperience of minors,” and that their apps’ algorithms create “rabbit-hole effects.”

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The Commission also questioned the effectiveness of the apps’ age verification tools, and minors’ privacy on the apps. If found in violation of the DSA, Meta could face a fine of up to 6% of its global revenue, and be forced to make major changes to the apps if it wants to keep doing business in the EU.

The investigation mirrors allegations in lawsuits against Meta in the United States: To date, 41 states and Washington, DC have sued the company, alleging Meta knowingly made both Instagram’s and Facebook’s designs and algorithms addictive and did not do enough to safeguard children on the platforms.

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SIGNALS

Semafor Signals: Global insights on today's biggest stories.

Platforms like YouTube have tried to combat the ‘rabbit hole’ problem

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Sources:  
Stanford Cyber Policy Center, The New York Times

The “rabbit hole effect” is when users repeatedly follow an algorithm’s recommendations to view ever more extreme content — but platforms have successfully circumvented it. In 2019, YouTube made changes to its recommendation system and demonetized channels after its algorithm appeared to promote misinformation and extremist content. In a study tracking user engagement after the change, scientists found only 3% of participants experienced the rabbit hole effect and that YouTube rarely recommended users extremist videos unless they already subscribed to the channel. Tech columnist Shira Ovide wrote in The New York Times that those worried about algorithms “should focus less on the potential risk of an unwitting person being led into extremist ideology” and more on how platforms “validate and harden the views of people already inclined to such beliefs.”

Meta says age verification should begin on the device, not its apps

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Sources:  
The Verge, TechCrunch, Fortune

Meta’s Global Head of Safety Antigone Davis told The Verge that the least invasive method of age verification may be to make users give their age as part of their phone setup, or when setting up an account on the app store. Across its apps, Meta has added new tools to try and limit younger users’ experiences, including a no under-13s age policy, face-scanning, government ID checks, and more. Some states have also set their own laws for age verification to keep minors off social media. While AI is seen by some as a useful tool to ensure compliance, lawmakers need to beware, one Fortune columnist cautioned, because the tech is young and can be biased.

China offers a radical alternative approach

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Source:  
MIT Technology Review

China has strict internet censorship, and for kids, the rules are even tighter. China has a three-hours-a-week limit on playing video games online, and a filtered version of Douyin, its version of TikTok, for users under 18, that promotes educational videos. “For better or worse, these moves have put China ahead of just about every other country in terms of controlling how minors use the internet,” MIT Technology Review’s Zeyi Yang wrote. Other guidelines for tech companies require app developers and app stores, as well as smartphones and other device makers, to impose limits, too. But such controls also raise concerns: “it’s the same technical system that protects children from harm, censors online speech, and collects vast amounts of personal data,” Yang wrote.

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