Experts tell Congress: Instagram, Snapchat need to do more to protect kids from predators

Sexual predators are increasingly going after children on popular online platforms, including Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube, and tech companies need to do more to protect kids from being exploited, experts told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

“Young people, particularly young girls, can be hunted like prey,” said Christopher McKenna, the founder and CEO of Protect Young Eyes, which helps parents and children use technology responsibly.

Expert witnesses told lawmakers that sexual exploitation of children online is growing, with predators often going directly to kids’ smartphones after they innocently post pictures of themselves.

McKenna said that his group created a fake account for a young girl on Instagram, one of the most popular online platforms with teens. The account included some pictures and hashtags and “liked” a few photos.

“Within a week, we had dozens of men sending us images of their genitals, telling us they were horny and sending us hardcore pornography through direct messages,” he said. “Even after we told all of them we were only 12, they were relentless.”

McKenna said those targeting kids often start with Instagram and move to Snapchat, since messages and images there quickly disappear.

John Clark, president and CEO of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said the number of suspected abuse cases has “exploded.” Last year, his organization received more than 18 million reports of international and domestic online sexual child abuse, including some involving infants.

“Law enforcement can’t arrest their way out of this,” Clark said. Like other witnesses, he said tech companies need to continue to do more to help address the torrent of inappropriate postings and messages.

YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat are the most popular platforms with teens, according to the Pew Research Center.

Instagram is owned by Facebook, while YouTube is owned by Google, and Snapchat is owned by Snap Inc. All of the companies have publicly defended their efforts to adhere to industry standards and improve monitoring of inappropriate content.

Lawmakers were told that companies, including Apple, have taken steps to help deal with the exploitation of kids online. But they also said efforts are often reactive.

“As disappointed as I am in the failure of these companies to meet their own terms of service and to act more promptly and preventively, the failure of enforcement is in many ways even more disturbing — even shocking,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, referring to the Federal Trade Commission.

Asked on a scale of 1 to 10 what she would give the FTC for its enforcement, Angela Campbell, a law professor at Georgetown University, said she would give the agency “half” of 1.

Members of the committee asked a wide range of questions aimed at trying to help parents mitigate the risk to their children. Among the experts’ recommendations were companies simplifying their systems for filtering and parental supervision.

The committee’s chairman, Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, said lawmakers will continue to look for ways to address the problems outlined by the panel. He indicated he doesn’t want to force companies to do certain things, but also said there is a need for continuing oversight, as well as the threat of legal action.

“If you pass that sort of government audit, then you’re good to go,” he said, closing the hearing. “If you don’t, then you’re exposed to lawsuits from moms and dads and everybody else.”

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