Teens on social media need both protection and privacy – AI could help get the balance right

Meta announced on Jan. 9, 2024, that it will protect teen users by blocking them from viewing content on Instagram and Facebook that the company deems to be harmful, including content related to suicide and eating disorders. The move comes as federal and state governments have increased pressure on social media companies to provide safety measures for teens.

At the same time, teens turn to their peers on social media for support that they can’t get elsewhere. Efforts to protect teens could inadvertently make it harder for them to also get help.

Congress has held numerous hearings in recent years about social media and the risks to young people. The CEOs of Meta, X – formerly known as Twitter – TikTok, Snap and Discord are scheduled to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Jan. 31, 2024, about their efforts to protect minors from sexual exploitation.

The tech companies “finally are being forced to acknowledge their failures when it comes to protecting kids,” according to a statement in advance of the hearing from the committee’s chair and ranking member, Senators Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), respectively.

I’m a researcher who studies online safety. My colleagues and I have been studying teen social media interactions and the effectiveness of platforms’ efforts to protect users. Research shows that while teens do face danger on social media, they also find peer support, particularly via direct messaging. We have identified a set of steps that social media platforms could take to protect users while also protecting their privacy and autonomy online.

What kids are facing

The prevalence of risks for teens on social media is well established. These risks range from harassment and bullying to poor mental health and sexual exploitation. Investigations have shown that companies such as Meta have known that their platforms exacerbate mental health issues, helping make youth mental health one of the U.S. Surgeon General’s priorities.

Teens’ mental health has been deteriorating in the age of social media.

Much of adolescent online safety research is from self-reported data such as surveys. There’s a need for more investigation of young people’s real-world private interactions and their perspectives on online risks. To address this need, my colleagues and I collected a large dataset of young people’s Instagram activity, including more than 7 million direct messages. We asked young people to annotate their own conversations and identify the messages that made them feel uncomfortable or unsafe.

Using this dataset, we found that direct interactions can be crucial for young people seeking support on issues ranging from daily life to mental health concerns. Our finding suggests that these channels were used by young people to discuss their public interactions in more depth. Based on mutual trust in the settings, teens…

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