Meta's fix for teen online mental health? Hold Apple and Google responsible

Facebook: If only we had a national law to ensure kids get parental permission to indulge in damaging social media

Meta, which stands accused in multiple lawsuits of ignoring the mental health toll its services have taken on teens and children, is finally calling for change – on the part of Apple and Google.

The headset and ad biz has voiced support for a federal law that would require app stores – mainly Apple's App Store and Google Play – to seek permission from parents before allowing teens under 16 to download apps brimming with potentially toxic engagement.

"Parents should approve their teen’s app downloads, and we support federal legislation that requires app stores to get parents’ approval whenever their teens under 16 download apps," said Antigone Davis, global head of safety for Meta, in a post published Wednesday.

"With this solution, when a teen wants to download an app, app stores would be required to notify their parents, much like when parents are notified if their teen attempts to make a purchase."

Davis argues that legislation is necessary to hold all players in the social media space to the same standard and opines that the industry needs to come together with lawmakers to create a simple way for parents to oversee teens' online experiences.

This lamentation about the difficulty of patenting and the patchwork of state regulations comes with no specific commitments from Meta or its global head of safety to make its business more safe.

Just last week, Arturo Béjar, a former Facebook engineering director from 2009 to 2015 and a consultant for Instagram from 2019 to 2021, told Congress how he had alerted senior management, including CEO Mark Zuckerberg, about teen harm and the network's failure to respond.

"Earlier this year, I was subpoenaed to testify under oath about emails I sent Facebook’s executive team as part of a government investigation and I realized that I had written these emails over two years ago and yet nothing had changed," said Béjar in prepared remarks.

"Meta continues to publicly misrepresent the level and frequency of harm that users, especially children, experience on the platform. And they have yet to establish a goal for actually reducing those harms and protecting children."

Meta continues to publicly misrepresent the level and frequency of harm that children experience on the platform

Béjar revelations echo similar claims [PDF] in 2021 by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen who told the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, "Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division, weaken our democracy and much more. The company’s leadership knows ways to make Facebook and Instagram safer and won’t make the necessary changes because they have put their immense profits before people."

Haugen just happens to agree with Davis that government intervention is necessary because Meta doesn't have the will. "Congressional action is needed," she added. "They cannot solve this crisis without your help."

When Haugen's accusations first emerged, Zuckerberg responded in a lengthy note to employees. "At the heart of these accusations is this idea that we prioritize profit over safety and well-being," he wrote. "That's just not true."

Yet there's some doubt about that, enough to prompt the US Surgeon General to issue a warning about the mental health consequences of social media. Meanwhile, at least 41 US states and hundreds of school districts have sued Meta for ignoring the potential harms of its products.

One of the state lawsuits, filed last month in California by Pennsylvania Attorney General Michelle Henry on behalf of 33 states, claims "Meta not only targets young minds with addictive, harmful, trap-door content – it also lies to the public and parents about how their platforms are safe."

Citing Béjar's claims that Meta knew and did nothing and a newly unsealed complaint filed by the Massachusetts Attorney General against Meta, a bipartisan group of US Senators on Wednesday sent a letter [PDF] to Zuckerberg demanding that he "provide documents related to senior executives’ knowledge of the mental and physical health harms associated with its platforms, including Facebook and Instagram" by the end of the month.

If only Apple and Google had done something sooner. ®

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