U.S. Sens. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., talk to reporters about their legislation to establish guidelines intended to protect children on social media platforms, prior to a U.S. Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023. (Samantha Dietel/States Newsroom)
WASHINGTON — U.S. senators at a Tuesday hearing pushed for bipartisan legislation to protect children online.
The U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law heard testimony from whistleblower Arturo Bejar, who served as Facebook’s director of engineering for protect and care from 2009 to 2015. Committee members discussed paths forward for holding social media companies accountable for the harm they can cause children.
Bejar, who said he felt “helpless” when his own daughter experienced sexual harassment online, said he presented Mark Zuckerberg and other leaders at Meta, formerly named Facebook, with research that indicated the ways children were harmed by Instagram. The company also owns Instagram.
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Bejar said Meta leadership disregarded his research and rejected his recommendations for making Facebook and Instagram safer. He also said some of the tools previously put in place to protect children had been rolled back.
Bejar said this research found that 1 in 8 children aged 13 to 15 years old experienced unwanted sexual advances in the past seven days on Instagram.
He said Meta has a “narrow definition of harm” for which the company dedicates resources.
Bejar also said an area that could be addressed is how users currently cannot block sexually inappropriate content in direct messages, for example. This could be made possible from an “‘unwanted contact’ button.”
“Social media companies must be required to become more transparent so that parents and the public can hold them accountable,” Bejar said.
“Every day countless people inside and outside of Meta are working on how to help keep young people safe online,” a Meta spokesperson, Nkechi Nneji, responded. “The issues raised here regarding user perception surveys highlight one part of this effort, and surveys like these have led us to create features like anonymous notifications of potentially hurtful content and comment warnings. Working with parents and experts, we have also introduced over 30 tools to support teens and their families in having safe, positive experiences online. All of this work continues.”
Kids Online Safety Act
Chairman Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, and Sen. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican spoke with reporters ahead of the hearing. The senators called for the passage of the Kids Online Safety Act, which they re-introduced together in May. Their legislation would establish guidelines to protect children on social media platforms.
“Senator Blackburn and I work relentlessly because we’re hearing from the moms and dads and kids about how bullying and eating disorders and suicide are so prevalent as a result of all social media, not just Facebook or Meta,” Blumenthal said.
Blackburn said it is important for social media platforms to prioritize safety and care to protect children from cyberbullying and other harmful online content. She expressed concerns about how social media platforms can connect children with drug dealers or pedophiles.
Earlier this year, the U.S. surgeon general reported that children aged 12 to 15 who spent more than three hours a day on social media “faced double the risk of experiencing poor mental health outcomes including symptoms of depression and anxiety.”
“What parents need is a toolbox, and that is not what social media platforms are doing,” Blackburn said.
Blumenthal said social media companies often place the responsibility on parents or the children themselves.
“Blame the victim — that’s the strategy of social media,” Blumenthal said. “Distract, deny and deceive. That’s what they’ve engaged in with armies of lawyers and lobbyists.”
Blumenthal said that “it’s big tobacco all over again” and “we can no longer rely on social media’s mantra, ‘Trust us.’”
Hawley wants floor vote
Ranking member Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, pledged that by the end of the year, he will “demand” a floor vote in the Senate on bills passed by the committee regarding the online protection of children.
Hawley has co-sponsored a bill with Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, that would combat the spread of child sexual abuse material online.
Blumenthal also said he wanted to join the pledge to vote on these bills by the end of the year.
Hawley said people should be able to sue social media companies for the harm they bring to children, as this may push them to change.
“They fear parents going to court and holding them accountable,” Hawley said. “That’s the hammer. That’s what happened with big tobacco. That’s what happened with opioids.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, raised concerns about the limits of taking social media companies to court for the harm they have caused children in the U.S.
“I can’t think of a company in the world who can do this crap and not get sued except these people,” Graham said of social media companies.
Graham said he has asked his office how much money he has received from Facebook, Instagram and other social media companies so that he can give it back, apparently referring to campaign funds.
Graham also called on members of Congress to stop accepting money from big tech companies “until they change, because the money you’re receiving is coming from people who have created a dangerous product for children and they seem not to be willing to change.”
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