`Study Finds Over 33 Million Instagram, TikTok Posts Promoting Harmful Content to Kids

The Ekō report came as a U.S. Senate panel held a hearing about online child sexual exploitation featuring testimony from five Big Tech CEOs.

By Jessica Corbett. Published 1-31-2024 by Common Dreams

As five Big Tech executives appeared before the U. S. Senate Judiciary Committee on January 31, 2024, Ekō held a protest at the U.S. Capitol and released a report about platforms promoting harmful content to children. (Photo: Ekō)

As five Big Tech executives appeared before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, the group Ekō released a report highlighting how “social media companies are not only failing to safeguard young users from harm, but actively profiting from it.”

“This briefing serves as an urgent call for legislative action,” says the 17-page publication from Ekō—previously called SumOfUs—which is addressed to the Senate panel on the first page and urges constituents to contact their members of Congress.

The report builds on Ekō research from 2021 and 2023. Again, the group focused on TikTok and Meta-owned Instagram, examining posts about “body image issues, skin whitening, mental health issues, including suicide and self-harm, as well as incel and misogynistic content.”

“This updated research, conducted between January 18th-25th, 2024 provides concrete data for members of the committee on how this kind of problematic content not only remains rampant on the platforms but in some cases has increased in volume,” the document states.

Ekō’s investigation uncovered over 33.26 million posts on both platforms “under hashtags housing problematic content directed at young users.”

Specifically, researchers found:

  • 8 hashtags about suicide leading to 1.54 million posts—a 33% increase in content since the group’s research last year;
  • 14 hashtags about involuntary celibate (incel) and manosphere content, leading to over a million posts—a 161% increase from 2023;
  • 5 hashtags about eating disorders leading to more than 1.28 million posts;
  • 16 hashtags about plastic and body modification surgeries leading to over 24.84 million posts—a 67% increase from 2021; and
  • 22 hashtags about skin whitening leading to 4.54 million posts.

Meanwhile, the report points, “social media giants are making a staggering $11 billion in U.S. ad revenue from ads targeted at minors, and despite promising to take action to stop directing personalized ads to children, they continue to do so.”

“Health experts are increasingly worried about the role of social media platforms in fueling the child mental health crisis, while
multiple studies have exposed the growing problem of child sexual exploitation online; and academics point to the growing evidence of addiction to social media among young people,” the document adds, urging “decisive actions from lawmakers.”

Ekō campaigner Maen Hammad echoed that call to action in a statement, saying that “this research underscores what we’ve known for a very long time now—a handful of tech CEOs have manufactured a new public health crisis and it’s harming kids with increasing ferocity.”

“Senators can ask Mark Zuckerberg as many questions as they like, but it’s not going to fix the problem unless we also get robust new laws,” Hammad added, referring to Meta’s CEO. “The real question is how much more evidence do U.S. lawmakers need before they act to defend our children from these predatory tech monopolies.”

In addition to Zuckerberg, whose company also owns Facebook, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony from TikTok’s Shou Chew, Snap’s Evan Spiegel, Discord’s Jason Citron, and Linda Yaccarino of X, the platform formerly called Twitter and owned by billionaire Elon Musk.

Ekō—which supports a full ban on surveillance advertising, the establishment of an algorithmic oversight board, and ending Big Tech’s predatory business model based on personal data harvesting—was far from alone in demanding legislative action as the panel held its “Big Tech and the Online Child Sexual Exploitation Crisis” hearing.

“Another hearing, more evasions and deflections from big tech CEOs,” Josh Golin of the child advocacy group Fairplay said Wednesday. “If Congress really cares about the families who packed the hearing today holding pictures of their children lost to social media harms, they will move the Kids Online Safety Act. Pointed questions and sound bites won’t save lives, but KOSA will.”

In September, Fairplay acknowledged concerns that KOSA “will have unintended consequences and cut off LGBTQ+ youth from online resources, or expand censorship powers” of right-wing state attorneys general, but said the group had consulted with “attorneys, leading queer advocates, First Amendment experts, and platform design experts who all agreed that any attempt by conservative AGs to censor LGBTQ+ content would not succeed.”

However, some digital rights advocates remain concerned about KOSA and other internet-related bills including the Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies (EARN IT) Act; Strengthening Transparency and Obligation to Protect Children Suffering from Abuse and Mistreatment (STOP CSAM) Act; Cooper Davis Act; and Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology (RESTRICT) Act.

Fight for the Future director Evan Greer said Wednesday that “Big Tech is harming kids. That’s not up for debate. We commend the parents and young people who are speaking up and demanding that lawmakers do something. Fight for the Future has worked for years to expose and address the harms of Big Tech monopolies and their surveillance capitalist business model.”

“But unfortunately, today’s hearing shows once again that many senators are actively helping Big Tech harm kids because they’re more interested in creating sound bites for TV than the actual work of legislating,” she argued. “Experts have repeatedly explained why, as written, dangerous and misguided bills like KOSA, STOP CSAM, and the EARN IT Act would make kids less safe, not more safe. Hundreds of thousands of young people and others have spoken up, calling for legislation that protects privacy rather than leads to censorship.”

Greer suggested that “these bills could be amended to ensure they target specific harmful business practices like autoplay, infinite scroll, and use of minor’s personal data to power recommendation algorithms, rather than being a blank check for censorship and expanding surveillance. Strict privacy and antitrust legislation would also go a long way toward reducing harm and diminishing the power and dominance of Big Tech giants.”

While praising the Senate panel for “bringing social media CEOs in to testify on the harms their companies cause or exacerbate for kids and families,” Demand Progress corporate power director Emily Peterson-Cassin also promoted antitrust bills on Wednesday.

“As the committee considers new legislation to address online harms to youth and families, we urge them to stay open-minded about types of solutions that could address these and other harms,” she said. The American Innovation and Choice Online Act and Open Apps Market Act, she noted, “would weaken the power of large companies to command our attention and our money.”

The Federal Trade Commission’s rulemaking on commercial surveillance “could ensure our privacy and safety against the abuses that stem from a data-hoarding business model,” she added. “These all have the potential to make the internet a better and safer place for everyone.”

The U.S. 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline can be reached by calling or texting 988, or through chat at 988lifeline.org. It offers 24/7, free, and confidential support.

This work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).

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