I’m 43. I made a fake Snapchat account pretending to be a 15-year-old. Within seconds, Snapchat’s algorithm delivered content it deemed “age appropriate.” Hardly.
No child should be fed the content I saw, by algorithm or content moderator.
Today, October 26, 2021, on the heels of testimony a few weeks ago by Frances Haugen, the Facebook whistleblower (as she will forever be known), members of Congress grilled executives from several other technology companies, including Snap, Inc. (Snapchat), TikTok, and YouTube.
Senator Blumenthal, like so many experts in recent years, compared this moment of reckoning for Big Tech to be similar to that of Big Tobacco. As we saw with Antigone Davis’s testimony on Facebook’s deceptive and harmful practices a few weeks ago, again today representatives of powerful and wealthy technology companies continued to deflect, dodge, and deny responsibility for the harms their platforms perpetuate. (Senator Ted Cruz told TikTok’s vice-president that he’d managed to dodge more questions than any previous witness in Congress.)
Senator Lee asked Snapchat representative Jennifer Stout, vice president for global public policy of Snapchat parent, Snap Inc., about why there is a disparity between the age rating for Snapchat on the Google Play app store (rated “Teen”) and the Apple app store (rated: “12+”). Ms. Stout reassured the Senator that “content on Snapchat is appropriate for 13 and above.”
Then, Senator Mike Lee told a story of how, in preparation for today’s hearing, a staff member in his office set up a fake Snapchat account, pretending to be a 15-year-old child, entering only a name, birth year, and email address.
When Senator Lee’s staff member opened the Discover tool on Snapchat (the “closed environment,” per Ms. Stout, where content is regulated; similar to Reels on Instagram), using only its default settings, Senator Lee stated that his staff member was “immediately bombarded with content I can mostly politely describe as wildly inappropriate for a child.”
Snapchat is barely a decade only, yet 90% of 13- to 24-year-olds in the United States use the platform. (I can only wonder how many of that age group are actually the age they say they are.)
According to Snapchat’s website, Discover is a list of “recommended stories.” Senator Lee asked, “So how does Snapchat choose what to recommend to children?”
Ms. Stout’s response: “Discover is a closed content platform, and we hand-select partners to work with. That kind of content is designed to resonate with an audience that is 13 and above.”
Here’s the content that Senator Lee’s staff was directed towards, while pretending to be a 15-year-old:
- Recommendations for an invite to play an online sexualized video game that is marketed itself to people who are 18+;
- Tips on why you shouldn’t go to bars alone;
- Notices from video games that are rated 17+;
- Articles about porn stars.
I don’t know any parent who would look at this list and think, “Sure, that makes sense for the type of content to direct towards a child.”
But of course, maybe Senator Lee was looking for a “gotcha” and his staffer got lucky at pulling up some pretty awful stuff.
So I decided to try it myself.
I created a fake Snapchat account. I chose a young-sounding handle, lied about my birthday (August 1, 2006, so I became 15 years old), and entered a real email address so I could verify the account. That was it. I even looked in Settings to see if I could alter my preferences, but it wasn’t immediately obvious where I could do that.
I clicked on the Discover icon, curious to see what content I, as a newly minted 15-year-old, might see, given that, according to Ms. Stout, the content on Snapchat is designed to “resonate” with my (fake) age group.
Here is the first screen shot of age-appropriate (13+) content that Ms. Stout said would resonate with me:
It didn’t get better as I scrolled to the next screen.
(Sure, Ms. Stout. What 15-year-old doesn’t love to learn tricks about why they should never go to bars alone?)
It is about time Big Tech has a reckoning in Washington. At least some of this (literally) dirty laundry is finally getting aired.
But this problem has existed for a long time, and it, unfortunately, isn’t going to end any time soon. Politics in Washington are pretty intense right now, and while this is getting much needed attention, the machinations of government move at a snail’s pace. Meanwhile, Big Tech is going to continue to grow bigger and wealthier and more powerful, because in this country, 15-year-olds don’t get a say, and corporations put profits before people.
Until there is a reason to change doing what they’re doing, Big Tech won’t stop. The money is too good.
But don’t despair, parents. If this imagery is shocking to you, good. Let it motivate you to make changes. Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok, and many other social media platforms are not for children. There are much better options out there for the occasional healthy, child-centered technology, to be co-viewed with parents in moderation, and decades of research on healthy child development points again and again to a “less is more” approach when it comes to technology and children.
That approach won’t work for Snapchat et al, of course. To them, “more is more.”