Exposure of children’s information costs Meta: The €405m data breach fine

October 18, 2022

Roxanne Denman

Meta seems to be failing Gen Z - having just faced a massive penalty following a data breach. Meta is reported to have allowed children to set up Instagram accounts that in turn exposed their private information. The children’s ages ranged from 13 to 17 years old, and those affected had their accounts defaulted to public profiles. (Do we really need to tell you how dangerous that is? Have you ever seen the camera roll of a 13-year-old?) Combine this data breach with continued online safety concerns - Virtual Reality harassment cases, online bullying, and increasing body image issues, and you have the perfect storm for the erosion of consumer trust. Analysts believe that how these situations are dealt with will have long-lasting future implications, not only for Meta - but for its users too.  

Why is this important?

The fine issued by the DPC is the second largest issued to a tech company under Europe’s GDPR data protection laws. Amazon faced a penalty because it violated data privacy rules in 2021, and paid a fine of a whopping €746 million.

The DPC confirmed that Instagram allowed minors to operate business accounts on its platform. These business accounts reveal email addresses and telephone numbers. However, an (undeservedly)disgruntled Meta has voiced its disagreement over the decision and has plans to appeal. If their appeal gains traction a lengthy legal process will no doubt ensue. Meta stated, “the inquiry focused on old settings that were updated over a year ago, and that it has since added several more features to improve the safety of young users.” (So that means it doesn’t matter right? While we’re at it - let’s not pay that traffic fine we’ve had for a few months.)

Meta and its aspirations

What do we see? A lack of care in the data protection of minors. Quite frankly - that is all that matters. Yes - with billions of users it is almost impossible to moderate content to the point where every user is safe. That said - passing the buck on an overt breach of trust is worse than admitting fault. Although all users should be confident enough to use the platform and have their information protected, vulnerable minors using the social media platform must have the due protection they require. This data breach is nothing more than a lack of due diligence from the social media giant.

Watchdogs - like the GDPR - have adopted special provisions to ensure platforms targeting children live up to a high standard of transparency. Unfortunately, having personal information exposed on Instagram because the default setting was set to public instead of private failed to protect our youth and fell short of the standard protection procedures that should be in place.  

Children and their relationship to social media

While we address the data breach and consider the pros and cons of social media, we must highlight that social media and technology have far-reaching benefits for children. Technological advancements secured educational progression during the Covid lockdown, and students were able to keep up with their curriculum. They could engage with peers using social platforms, leaving them feeling less isolated than they would have if this were not an option. However, there are dark revelations about how social media platforms affect teenagers.

In 2021, Meta suspended the development of a version of Instagram for children after information was exposed that the platform directly attributed the use thereof to negative implications on teen mental health.

These concerns surrounding Instagram for children were instigated by parents, regulators, and mental health experts. Facebook’s internal research has shown that Instagram can affect serious mental health issues affecting teenagers' self-esteem and body image. The research also indicated that it affected the mental health of teenage girls in particular.

So, what do these stats reveal? 13.5% of U.K. teen girls in one survey say their suicidal thoughts became more frequent after scrolling on Instagram. Another leaked study found that 17% of teen girls say their eating disorders worsened after using Instagram. If the girls had already experienced negative self-image thoughts, 32% of them said Instagram made them feel worse.

This insight, considering other factors like the data breach, is sobering, to say the least.

The way forward

In an ever-changing world, for a company like Meta to stay relevant, they need to start placing people before profits. Realistically - this isn’t going to happen any time soon.  

Exposure to the inside tactics of Meta's research team and findings displayed its dedication to consistently maximize growth rather than implement safety precautions on its platforms. The research wasn't made public until recently, insinuating rather sinister motives far from their mission to help connect people. These motives seek to increase profits instead of benefitting the users. The exposed internal research illuminated how their products harm users, but unfortunately, it didn't stop them until they had been publicly exposed.  

Social media platforms, at the very least, will need to protect vulnerable users (our children) from harassment, online bullying, and data breaches resulting in the release of private information. They need to focus on the safety of the user in its entirety. The conventional beauty standards that are splashed online need to be addressed, and building mental health protection must become a priority.

Open communication is the key to reducing the stigmatization of children for having different body types. We need to be a voice for our youth. At the very least, they need to be confident that their personal information will be protected. Children need to know they are supported and can get help when and if they need it.

What do we think?

Social media giants need to stop prioritizing profits and start prioritizing the safety, mental health, and privacy protection of the next generation. If Meta, Instagram, and other social media platforms want to target the woke generation, they need to adjust their way of thinking now. We have every faith that if we continue to teach our children responsibility and self-worth, they will continue to communicate with this, and together we possess the power to keep these companies accountable.

The world needs to develop a strong future for tomorrow. Building capable leaders will take work, and social media companies hold great power in the direction the youth will follow. We are happy that the DPC has kept Meta accountable. Greed continues to be a central narrative to Meta. Policies need to be reviewed consistently and if they don't uphold transparent policies and high standards, we must teach Gen Z and even Generation Alpha to keep them accountable. Who knows? Maybe the next generation will build new platforms and companies that can protect us and develop and contribute to a sound future of equality and good mental health practices.

But where does that start? It starts with us.

We must continue our fight to enforce transparent policies, demand that our information be protected, and hold the relevant platforms liable. And if we don't, it will be a never-ending battle of wits and deep pockets.

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