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‘Autoplay’ Not the Problem

FTC Will Add Pediatricians to Staff for Kids’ Privacy Issues

The FTC has plans for adding psychologists and pediatricians to its staff to help on issues related to social media use and child mental health, Commissioner Alvaro Bedoya said Monday. The agency wants to emulate the U.K.’s Competition and Markets Authority, which has interdisciplinary teams within the organization, he said during State of the Net conference. The agency plans to add the specialists in the fall, he said. Based on social science research, three things are driving “teen mental health” concerns online, he said: social media content, extended engagement tools and features that enable user harassment.

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As to content, teens are exposed to harmful material such as tips on extreme dieting that lead to anorexia and bulimia, he said. Children and teens are also spending much more time online than they “want to or normally would” because of design features like “autoplay” and “endless scroll,” he said. And privacy settings are set so low that children and teens can be harassed easily while playing online games, he said. He noted the FTC is working through a proposed update to Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act rules (see 2401180071), with one proposal ensuring companies aren’t inappropriately using private data to get teens and children to return to platforms repeatedly.

Bedoya discussed how AI tools play into the problems, saying there are open questions about companies that control AI technology “bottlenecks,” and how that affects fair competition. A company’s ability to hire engineering experts, its computing power and its networks of millions can limit a startup's ability to enter the market, said Bedoya.

He mentioned the FTC’s study of Alphabet, Amazon and Microsoft that will examine if they're unfairly exerting undue control over AI markets, which Chair Lina Khan announced Thursday (see 2401250071). Bedoya said he hopes the study will shed light on how these bottlenecks work. However, he said the agency will need to identify causation between the technology and societal harm before pursuing enforcement action.

The conversation surrounding social media is similar to that surrounding the Columbine school shooting and video games, said Daniel Castro, Information Technology and Innovation Foundation vice president. “People were looking for something to blame and what they could do,” he said. “The answer was video games. ... Regulating [video games] would not have addressed all the school shootings we've seen since then. There were other problems there.” The focus on social media takes attention away from real problems, he said: law enforcement resources, “better safety nets for children,” counseling and other tools. “It’s not about whether we’re having autoplay on videos on social media.”

Children should be able to play and socialize online without the harms that have cropped up due to a lack of regulation, said Fairplay Policy Counsel Haley Hinkle. Kids’ social media feeds aren’t strictly content from their friends, she said: “They are seeing things that are being pushed to them because a platform has decided it is such in order for it to be profitable."