Meta Consultant Speaks Before Congress on Child Safety Following Personal Incident

by Gabriel Martinez
Instagram child safety testimony

While Frances Haugen delivered testimony in Congress regarding the dangers Facebook and Instagram pose to children in autumn 2021, Arturo Béjar, a former Facebook engineering leader who later consulted for Meta, communicated an urgent message to Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg on the same subject.

Drawing on his deep experience with online harassment prevention, Béjar related a disturbing account to Zuckerberg: his daughter’s distressing encounters on Instagram. Despite raising the alarm, his concerns fell on deaf ears. When Tuesday arrived, it was Béjar’s moment to address Congress.

Addressing a U.S. Senate committee, he stated, “Today, I stand before you as a father who has directly witnessed his child being subjected to inappropriate sexual overtures on Instagram.”

Béjar, renowned for his anti-cyberbullying initiatives, served as an engineering director at Facebook from 2009 until 2015. He believed that safety was improving. However, after his departure and prior to his 2019 return as a contractor, his daughter began facing dire issues on Instagram.

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During his testimony on Tuesday, he recounted, “My daughter and her peers were victims of persistent sexual harassment and unwanted advances.” Even though she reported these incidents, the company’s response was inadequate.

He observed this is an all-too-common experience, particularly among youth.

“Recently, my 16-year-old daughter, an aspiring content creator on Instagram, posted about automobiles, only to receive a sexist comment that said, ‘Get back to the kitchen.’ This greatly distressed her,” he revealed. “Yet, such comments don’t technically breach our policies, and merely blocking or deleting them doesn’t prevent the perpetuator from harassing others. I believe that mere policy enforcement or increased content review is not the solution.”

On Tuesday, before the Senate’s subcommittee on privacy and technology, Béjar offered his insights on the mental health crisis among teens in the context of social media, emphasizing how Meta’s leadership, including Zuckerberg, was aware of Instagram’s detrimental impact yet chose not to implement significant protective measures.

He argues that Meta must revise its platform monitoring, targeting harassment and similar negative encounters that may not explicitly breach current policies. For example, sending obscene sexual messages to minors might not contravene Instagram’s regulations, but Béjar contends there should be mechanisms for teens to signal to the platform their refusal of such interactions.

“It is clear that Meta’s top brass is aware of the damage adolescents suffer, the feasible solutions at hand, and yet, they remain inactive,” Béjar expressed to The Big Big News, concluding that “our children’s safety in their hands is questionable.”

In his introductory remarks at the hearing, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, chairing the privacy and technology subcommittee, lauded Béjar’s esteemed industry reputation as an engineer hired to safeguard children, though his proposals were disregarded.

“What your testimony brings to this hearing is critical for every parent to understand,” added Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, the leading Republican on the committee.

Béjar pointed out internal surveys that indicated a disturbing statistic: 13% of young Instagram users, aged 13 to 15, reported unsolicited sexual advances within the past week.

He believes the protective reforms he proposes wouldn’t markedly impact Meta’s revenues or profits. They aren’t designed to penalize the firms, rather to assist teens.

“You’ve heard the company claim the complexity of the issue,” Béjar informed the AP. “It’s not complex. Simply allow the teen to indicate ‘this content isn’t for me’ and use that feedback to improve all systems.”

This testimony unfolds amidst a nonpartisan initiative in Congress to enact regulations safeguarding children’s online activities.

Meta stated, “We are dedicated to maintaining youth safety online every day, with continuous efforts from both within and outside of Meta. The user feedback surveys we conduct are part of this mission, resulting in the development of features like anonymous notifications about potentially offensive content and preemptive comment warnings. Collaborating with parents and specialists, we’ve devised over 30 instruments to promote a secure and positive online environment for teens and their families. We are constantly evolving these initiatives.”

On materials users encounter that don’t violate Instagram’s rules, Meta refers to its 2021 “content distribution guidelines,” which ensure that “problematic or low-quality” content is less visible in user feeds. This spans a range of content including sensationalistic material, verified misinformation, and “borderline” posts such as sexually suggestive images, coarse language, implicit hate speech, or violent graphics.

Moreover, in 2022, Meta launched “kindness reminders” prompting users to remain respectful in direct messages, but this only applies to message requests to creators, not regular users.

The hearing arrives just two weeks after a collective of U.S. states initiated legal action against Meta, accusing it of contributing to the youth mental health crisis by deliberately crafting addictive features on Instagram and Facebook.

Béjar underscored the “absolute necessity” for Congress to pass bipartisan legislation, ensuring transparency regarding these issues and assisting teenagers with expert support.

“The most effective regulatory approach for social media entities is to mandate the development of metrics that allow for the evaluation and monitoring of user harm instances by both the company and third parties. These companies thrive on data, and this approach leverages their strengths,” he articulated in his official statement.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Instagram child safety testimony

Who testified before Congress about Instagram’s impact on child safety?

Arturo Béjar, a former engineering director and later a consultant for Meta, testified before Congress. He shared his daughter’s experiences with harassment on Instagram and criticized the company’s response to such issues.

What did Arturo Béjar propose to Congress regarding social media platforms?

Béjar proposed that social media companies, specifically Meta, should change their approach to monitoring platforms by focusing on harassment and unwanted sexual advances, even if they do not violate existing policies.

What evidence did Arturo Béjar present to the Senate subcommittee?

Béjar presented user survey data indicating that 13% of Instagram users aged 13-15 reported receiving unwanted sexual advances on the platform within the previous week.

What was Meta’s response to the issues raised in the testimony?

Meta stated that they are committed to keeping young people safe online, referencing their content distribution guidelines and tools such as anonymous notifications and comment warnings designed to improve user experience.

What legislative actions did Arturo Béjar deem essential following his testimony?

Béjar emphasized the need for bipartisan legislation to ensure transparency about the harms on social media platforms and to provide help for teenagers with expert support.

More about Instagram child safety testimony

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Jenny87 November 7, 2023 - 6:42 pm

So he used to work there and even he says they’re not doing enough, that says a lot doesn’t it, gotta wonder what it takes for real change

Mike Johnson November 8, 2023 - 12:28 am

Wow this is big, Bejar stepping up in congress really sheds light on whats happening to kids on social media

Dave L November 8, 2023 - 4:26 am

honestly, Meta’s response sounds like PR talk, they say they’re working on it but when you see the real stories, makes you wonder

CryptoTom November 8, 2023 - 1:07 pm

heard about this, Instagram and FB gotta take more responsibility, good on Bejar for speaking out.

Sarah K November 8, 2023 - 3:10 pm

its not surprising but still alarming to see the stats on harassment, we’ve known for a while but when will it actually change


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