February 25, 2024

AI Holds Promise In Balancing Protection And Privacy For Teens On Social Media

As concerns around the safety of teen users on social media platforms continue to mount, Meta has announced plans to protect teens by implementing content-blocking measures on Instagram and Facebook. The company aims to prevent the viewing of harmful content, including posts related to suicide and eating disorders, in response to increased pressure from federal and state governments.

While these measures are intended to safeguard young users, there is a potential downside that needs to be considered. Teens often turn to their peers on social media for support and assistance that may not be easily accessible elsewhere. Consequently, implementing strict protective measures could inadvertently hinder their ability to seek help when needed.

Over the past few years, the US Congress has held multiple hearings to address the risks associated with social media use among young people. In an upcoming hearing scheduled for January 31, 2024, the CEOs of Meta, X (formerly Twitter), TikTok, Snap, and Discord will testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding their efforts to protect minors from sexual exploitation.

Acknowledging their shortcomings, technology companies are now being compelled to confront the issue of safeguarding children’s online experiences. According to Senators Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), respective chair and ranking member of the committee, the tech industry has finally realized the urgency of addressing these concerns.

Experts in the field of online safety, such as myself and my colleagues, have been conducting research on teen social media interactions and evaluating the effectiveness of platforms’ attempts to ensure user protection. Our studies indicate that while teens do face risks on social media, they also find valuable peer support, particularly through direct messaging. Through our investigations, we have identified a series of steps that social media platforms can take to protect users while preserving privacy and autonomy online.

The prevalence of risks for teens on social media is well-documented, encompassing issues such as harassment, cyberbullying, negative mental health outcomes, and sexual exploitation. In fact, investigations have revealed that companies like Meta were aware of the detrimental impact their platforms have on mental health, prompting the U.S. Surgeon General to prioritize youth mental well-being.

Much of the existing research on adolescent online safety relies on self-reported data obtained through surveys. However, there is a pressing need for further exploration of young people’s real-world interactions and their perspectives on online risks. In an effort to address this, my colleagues and I have collected a substantial dataset comprising more than 7 million direct messages from young people’s Instagram activities. We asked them to annotate their conversations and highlight any messages that made them feel uncomfortable or unsafe.

Analyzing this dataset, we discovered that direct interactions play a crucial role in enabling young people to seek support on a range of issues, including daily life challenges and mental health concerns. Our findings suggest that these channels offer young people a safe space to discuss their public interactions in greater depth. Within the context of a trusted setting, teens feel comfortable reaching out for help.

While it is essential to implement measures that protect teens on social media, it is equally important to ensure their privacy and autonomy are upheld. Artificial intelligence (AI) holds promise in striking the right balance between these two objectives. AI-powered algorithms can be designed to detect and flag potentially harmful content without compromising users’ privacy. By leveraging AI, social media platforms can implement proactive measures that protect teens while still allowing them to benefit from the support and connectivity that these platforms offer.

In conclusion, as social media companies grapple with the challenge of keeping teen users safe, finding the balance between protection and privacy is paramount. Through the use of AI and thoughtful implementation of protective measures, it is possible to create an online environment that safeguards young users while preserving their ability to seek support and engage with their peers.

1. Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research
2. We have leveraged AI tools to mine information and compile it