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Former Meta Staff Member Highlights Instagram’s Teen Safety Concerns

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Arturo Béjar, a former senior staff member at Meta, testified before the US Congress on Tuesday, raising concerns about Instagram’s efforts to protect teenagers from sexual harassment. He shared that he believes his whistleblowing may have repercussions for his career in the tech industry. Béjar’s tenure at Meta, the parent company of Instagram and Facebook, spans from 2009 to 2015 and then again from 2019 to 2021.

Meta has asserted that they have introduced “over 30 tools” to create a safer online environment for teenagers. However, Béjar expressed that when he initially left the company in 2015, he believed they were heading in the right direction to enhance online safety. It was his daughter’s experience with Instagram that opened his eyes to the platform’s issues.

In an exclusive interview with the BBC, Béjar disclosed that shortly after his daughter joined Instagram, she encountered unwanted sexual advances, misogyny, and harassment at the young age of 14. He further mentioned that when he discussed these problems with her, he discovered that all of her friends were facing similar challenges. The lack of an effective reporting mechanism for such issues troubled Béjar, and he is sharing his story with the US Congress to provide lawmakers with vital information.

Béjar noted that there is an unusual consensus across the political spectrum about the need for legislation to safeguard children online. He suggested that it would be relatively simple for Meta to implement a dedicated button for teenagers to flag inappropriate messages as sexual advances.

“I can speak firsthand about how easy it is to build a button and a counter,” said Béjar, emphasizing that the absence of such a feature is due to the lack of transparency regarding the problems teenagers encounter on Instagram.

Presently, Instagram users can report messages for various reasons, including “sexual exploitation or solicitation.” Meta has introduced several features to enhance teen safety, including anonymous notifications for potentially harmful content.

Béjar, who previously served as the director of engineering at Facebook, stated that the tools implemented by Instagram were insufficient and merely a “placebo for press and regulators.” He argued that these tools were not data-driven and highlighted the absence of options in Instagram messages for flagging unwanted advances explicitly.

The whistleblower stated that creating a user-friendly button for teenagers to report such advances is the bare minimum, especially since teenagers might be uncomfortable with the term “report.” He added that internal research from 2011 showed that 13-year-olds found the word “report” intimidating.

In 2021, Béjar shared his concerns with top executives at Meta, including Instagram’s chief, Adam Mosseri. While he felt that Mosseri understood the problem, he remained unsure if the company would take action. The former Meta staff member concluded, “Social media should not be a place where a kid receives those kinds of things.”

Béjar claimed that internal statistics indicated that one in eight 13 to 15-year-olds had experienced unwanted sexual advances on Instagram within a week. He sought to hold Meta accountable and questioned the acceptability of any percentage of teenagers receiving unwanted sexual advances on a social media platform.

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