‘There is enormous damage being done’: Social media firms grilled at Oireachtas committee

Legislators should be ‘much more aggressive’ in holding technology firms to account, Oireachtas committee told

Social media firms are causing “unquantifiable damage” by promoting inappropriate and dangerous content to young people, an Oireachtas committee has heard.

The Oireachtas committee on children, attended by representatives of Meta, TikTok and X, came days after a warning by Tánaiste Micheál Martin to tech firms to “get underage children off your apps”.

Michael Creed, Fine Gael TD for Cork North West, said presentations from representatives of social media firms “ticked all the boxes” that a media adviser would want, with references to “trust, transparency, empowerment and content moderation”.

“The truth is that the jury is in: there is enormous, quantifiable damage being done, and a widespread concern of unquantifiable damage being done in terms of cognitive impairment,” he said, adding that it was not unusual for young people to be on social media platform for “six, seven or eight hours a day”, which was “corrosive” to their health.

READ MORE

“As legislators, and for our regulators, I think we need to be much, much more aggressive.”

Mr Creed asked why young people could open accounts on TikTok or Snapchat at 13, while the age of digital consent was set at 16. He said while social media firms were seeking credit for taking millions of underage accounts offline, nobody underage should be have access to social media in the first place.

“The State doesn’t give driving licences to 12- or 13-year-olds,” he said. “Why should we accept a situation where a social media company can say, ‘Oh, well, they told us they were 13 or 16′. There are ways and means. If social media companies were serious, they could verify and validate applications.”

Fianna Fáil’s Senator Malcolm Byrne said he was not convinced that use of artificial intelligence to flag inappropriate content, such as extreme or violent material, was effective.

“No matter what you’re doing, you’re not succeeding,” he said.

He said misinformation around riots in Sydney recently had included content from Ireland, which prompted a strong response from the Australian social media commissioner.

“Online content, once seen, cannot be unseen,” he said. “Teenagers and indeed the wider population are being exposed to serious misinformation, disinformation... and extreme and gratuitously violent material.”

Fianna Fáil’s Senator Erin McGreehan said much of social media was a “cesspit”, and was not a safe place for children given the proliferation of content on issues such as self-harm and suicide. “It is absolutely frightening.”

Fine Gael’s Senator Mary Seery-Kearney said it was “unforgivable” that WhatsApp had recently reduced its age limit to 13, and said the mental health of young people was being affected by the addictive nature of social media. She said evidence of heightened levels of anxiety among teenagers had much to do with how they were increasingly communicating through devices and not directly with each other.

“What can you do to address the mental health element, when you have a business model which runs counter to that?”

Sinn Féin TD Kathleen Funchion said it was clear there was an “underlying negativity” around the way recommender algorithms work, and that more robust age verification could tackle issues around fake or bot accounts.

Susan Moss of TikTok said safety was a core priority which defines the company, which now has more than 40,000 “trust and safety” professionals working to protect online users.

“For our part, we will strive to continuously improve our efforts to address harms facing young people online through dedicated policies, 24/7 monitoring and the use of innovative technology, and significant ongoing investments in trust and safety to achieve this goal.”

Dualta Ó́ Broin, head of public policy for Meta in Ireland, said the company wanted Facebook and Instagram to be safe places where young people do not have to see content meant to intimidate, exclude or silence them. He said the most efficient and effective way to tackle underage access was to have an age-verification system at the operating system or app store level.

“This would not remove responsibility from every app to have processes in place to manage age effectively,” he said.

Claire Dilé, director of government affairs for Europe at X – formerly Twitter, said the platform was “not the platform of choice for children and teens” and it did not have a line of business dedicated to children.

“According to our data, in the first three months of 2024, 13- to 17-year-olds accounted for less than 1 per cent of X’s active account holders in Ireland,” she said.

Follow The Irish Times education section on Facebook and X (Twitter) and stay up to date

Read More

Recommended