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Kids emerge as bipartisan bridge for taking on social media giants

Lawmakers link use of Facebook, Instagram and YouTube to cyberbullying, teenage suicide, depression and loneliness

Washington Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers speaks during the 2020 Conservative Political Action Conference.
Washington Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers speaks during the 2020 Conservative Political Action Conference. (Getty Images)

The bipartisan focus on issues facing children at last week’s House hearing with the chief executives of major social media companies is encouraging advocates who believe kids can be the bridge between Democrats and Republicans who want to take on Big Tech but lack common political ground.

The Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on March 25 featured familiar topics as lawmakers peppered the executives — Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg; Twitter’s Jack Dorsey; and Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google’s parent company, Alphabet — with questions about disinformation and hate speech online.

But lawmakers homed in on the well-being of children on social media throughout the hearing, linking excessive use of platforms such as Facebook, Instagram (owned by Facebook) and YouTube (owned by Google) to cyberbullying, teenage suicide, depression and loneliness.

“Your platforms are my biggest fear as a parent,” Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the top Republican on the committee, told the executives in her opening remarks. “I’m a mom of three school-age kids, and my husband and I are fighting the Big Tech battles in our household every day. It’s a battle for their development, a battle for their mental health and, ultimately, a battle for their safety.”

Lawmakers said the bipartisan focus on children should alert the companies that threats of tougher regulations should not ring hollow.

“This committee is ready to legislate to protect our children from your ambition,” said Rep. Lori Trahan, D-Mass.

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The hearing was welcomed by advocates who have long argued that Democrats and Republicans, united in their desire to take on Big Tech but divided by opposing politics, should be pushing big changes to internet policy through the lens of children.

“Kids are universal,” said Jim Steyer, CEO of Common Sense Media, a national child advocacy nonprofit. “It doesn’t matter if you’re Republican or a Democrat, or live in an urban district or a rural district. You can avoid the toxic politics of Washington and say what’s good for our kids is good for our country.”

Lawmakers expressed concerns that children, more isolated as a result of the ongoing pandemic, are becoming more addicted to social media. Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, said recent reports that Facebook is seeking to create a version of Instagram for children below the age of 13 is the latest example of the social media industry’s attempts to circumvent child privacy laws to turn a profit.

“Big Tech is essentially handing our children a lit cigarette and hoping they stay addicted for life,” Johnson said.

Zuckerberg said the product had not yet been introduced because the company is still figuring out how to give parents control of how children under 13 would use it. But he said he believed the product would have “broadly positive” effects by helping kids connect with their friends.

[Section 230 changes will be elusive despite pressure on tech CEOs]

Trahan said she was struggling to accept Facebook’s support for federal privacy laws and changes to Section 230, a 1996 law that shields online platforms from lawsuits related to third-party content, while the company is “plotting your next frontier of growth, which deviously targets our young children.”

In a key exchange, Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., asked Zuckerberg how much revenue Facebook generates by targeting advertising at users under the age of 13.

“It should be none of it,” Zuckerberg replied. “We don’t allow children under the age of 13 on any services that run advertising.”

Castor responded by asking Zuckerberg whether that meant there are no children under 13 currently using Instagram. Zuckerberg said the company removes them from the platform when they find them.

“Every parent knows kids under the age of 13 are on Instagram,” Castor said. “And the problem is that you know it. And you know that the brain and social development of our kids is still evolving at a young age. There are reasons [current laws] set that cutoff at 13.”

Steyer’s nonprofit, which reaches millions of parents and educators throughout the country by rating and recommending media content aimed at children, has long been working behind the scenes on technology policy. The group helped pass California’s landmark data privacy law and has since turned its focus to getting Congress, which Steyer said has been “missing in action,” to take on Big Tech.

His hope is that lawmakers will position a variety of legislative proposals, especially on issues like data privacy and content moderation, under an umbrella of protecting kids online.  

“My reaction to the hearing was, my gosh, they finally started framing this through the lens of kids and families,” Steyer said. “And that is a very effective political lens.”