WASHINGTON, D.C. — Tennessee’s junior U.S. Senator, Marsha Blackburn, is urging the world’s most popular social networking tool among children to take action to protect those underage users from sexual predators.
Blackburn, a Republican who was elected in 2018 to replace the retiring Bob Corker, wrote a letter to Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel on Monday, urging him to protect children from predators and protect them from being exposed to explicit adult content.
“In 2019, our children are living an unprecedented amount of their young lives online,” Blackburn said. “Snap must be transparent with users about the steps they take to ensure their application is used responsibly and not taken advantage of by those who wish to do innocent children harm.”
According to Blackburn, Snapchat generated $1.18 billion in revenue in 2018, and has 16.4 million teenaged users. However, she said, the app’s rating — age-appropriate for children ages 13 and up — fails to provide parents with adequate warnings about its potential dangers.
“Just as teens flock to Snapchat, so do criminals seeking a platform that enables easy contact with potential minor victims,” Blackburn said.
The senator highlighted two cases: the 2017 arrest of a California man who allegedly coerced six young boys between the ages of 12 and 15 — including at least one from Tennessee — to send sexually explicit videos of themselves; and the arrest of a Massachusetts man earlier this year who was charged with child sexual exploitation after he was caught posing as a teenage girl on Snapchat to extort nude photos from minors.
“Snapchat’s disappearing videos are a child predator’s dream,” Blackburn said, referring to the platform’s signature auto-deleting feature that causes pictures and videos to disappear seconds after they’re viewed. Blackburn said that feature makes predators “far more likely” to use Snapchat than any other platform.
Blackburn also highlighted a Snapchat feature that allows users to share their location in real time. While the feature is not activated by default, users can choose to turn on a setting that reveals their location on the “Snap map.” When it’s active, the user’s avatar — called a Bitmoji — appears on a map that is updated every few seconds.
“Snap Map lets children share location in real time with users on their friend list. But if their location is left in public mode, Snap Map can reveal the location of gullible child users to complete strangers, along with their Snap video feed,” Blackburn said.
Blackburn is far from the first politician of either major party to express concerns about the inherent risks associated with Snapchat. However, she took it a bit further by questioning underage users’ exposure to sexually explicit content. Sexually-themed content is highlighted by the app on a daily basis, and Snapchat does not filter the content based on age.
“Even if minors are not exposed to sexual predators, they are exposed to unsolicited, provocative images via advertisements, channels and search results generated by Snapchat itself,” Blackburn said.
Blackburn conceded that Snapchat’s policies adhere to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998, but said that the federal law is outdated.
“The National Center on Sexual Exploitation is calling for the creation of an independence review board to ensure that modern smartphone apps like Snapchat are rated correctly, in order to better inform parents’ decisions to allow their children to use these apps,” Blackburn said. “This independent board would function similarly to the Entertainment Software Rating Board, which monitors and rates video games, and the Motion Picture Association of America, which does the same for movies.”
Blackburn called on Spiegel to answer a series of question: What is Snapchat doing to ensure that predators do not assume false identities in order to elicit sexual images from inors? What policies has Snapchat considered to regulate advertisements seen by minors, and other sexually explicit content? Does Snapchat intend to provide parents with more controls to monitor what their minors send, receive and view on Snapchat? Does Snapchat intent to change its app descriptions in app stores to “more accurately describe” the availability of sexual content and nudity? And, does Snapchat’s revenue model and user growth depend on attracting young users under the age of 18?