Yesterday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg posted a 3,000-word message in which he outlined his vision for a more privacy-focused future for the tech company. As the U.S. Programs’ Director at Love146, an international anti-trafficking organization, I both applaud this vision and have serious skepticism.
Facebook has a long history of taking a vocal and ardent stance against child sexual exploitation, yet it continues to be one of the most popular platforms traffickers use to groom and recruit the youth we serve.
Facebook promotes and profits off the false narrative that the most “likes” a post gets the more “popular” and “happy” one must be. It is therefore not uncommon for the youth we work with to report having 3,000-5,000 “friends” on Facebook. They are able to do this, in large part, because Facebook’s default settings are the least private possible, and they do not make information about privacy settings easy to understand and set up, though they claim they do.
Even though Facebook knows and encourages children to use their platform, setting a minimum age of just 13 years old, it does nothing to further protect the privacy of the children who use it.
In fact, even when children’s profiles indicate that they are as young as 13 years old, the default settings set their profiles to “public” so that anyone can access and “friend” them. In fact, most parents and caregivers we work with also don’t understand and can’t navigate the privacy settings on Facebook’s platform, so even well-intentioned and involved parents struggle to keep their children safe.
So in this false world, in which “likes” equate to “happiness,” predators prey on teenagers who are transitioning through developmental phases marked by insecurity and inconsistency. It is this world in which girls we work with often report meeting “the first person who ever really understood and listened to them,” meeting “the love of their life” (or so they think), or meeting “the person who promised they could take care of me.”
If Facebook really wants to pivot for a future that is more privacy-focused and one that protects our children, it should change the default settings for the accounts of children (anyone under 18) to the most private settings available. This doesn’t mean that children couldn’t change these settings, but as Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein so clearly demonstrated in their New York Times best-selling book, Nudge, studies have shown time and time again that making an option the default increases the likelihood that it is chosen. Therefore, most children will maintain the default privacy settings protecting them from predators.
Header image adapted from photo by Jason McELweenie