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Social media companies put profits over children, senators say

Sens. Blumenthal and Blackburn making changes to legislation with possible remedies

Sens. Marsha Blackburn and Richard Blumenthal have slammed social media companies' treatment of children.
Sens. Marsha Blackburn and Richard Blumenthal have slammed social media companies' treatment of children. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Senators sounded off against social media platforms and called for action during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday, saying the companies lack accountability and are focused on profits at the expense of children. 

The hours-long hearing touched on an array of issues, including: the harms of cyberbullying, the scourge of child sexual abuse material on social media, and mental health issues among youth. It also underscored how there is bipartisan support for taking action on social media platforms — even in a narrowly divided Congress. 

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, condemned big tech and said the companies are exacerbating a mental health crisis among young people, aggravating the issue with toxic content. 

“We need to be blunt from the beginning because we know right now the central truth: Big tech has relentlessly, ruthlessly pumped up profits by purposefully exploiting kids and [their] parents’ pain,” he said.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, said kids’ data are being taken and monetized, adding: The companies should be required to make their platforms safer by default. 

“It is almost as if these social media platforms are operating in the days of the Wild West and anything goes,” she said. 

One point of focus during the hearing was legislation known as the Kids Online Safety Act, which supporters say would put in place safeguards for children online.

Under the legislation, messaging apps and social media services used by kids would be required to provide children with “easy-to-use safeguards” to disable addictive product features and protect personal data. 

The legislation also includes a duty-of-care provision, stipulating that social media services will act in the best interests of a child and take reasonable measures, in their operation, to mitigate mental health disorders. 

A Senate Democratic aide said the timeline for when the bill would be reintroduced or considered is in flux and that last year’s text is still being tweaked.

A Senate Republican aide said leadership has been encouraging of the bill during discussions.

A consolidated case is expected to be filed today in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California based on some of the hundreds of related lawsuits against social media companies.

A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 57 percent of female high school students said they experienced “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” during the past year. That figure is the highest percentage in a decade, according to the survey, and is an increase compared to 36 percent in 2011. 

The survey also found that 30 percent of female high school students “seriously considered attempting suicide” during the past year, the highest rate in a decade. The rate among male high school students was less than half that of females, according to the survey. 

Emma Lembke, a college sophomore at Washington University in St. Louis, spoke at the hearing and recalled creating her first social media account on Instagram in the 6th grade. She said her physical and mental health suffered as her screen time increased. 

“The constant quantification of my worth through likes, comments and followers heightened my anxiety and deepened my depression,” she said. “As a young woman, the constant exposure to unrealistic body standards and harmful recommended content led me towards disordered eating and severely damaged my sense of self.”

The hearing also turned attention to a provision in the law known as Section 230, which in general prevents providers from being liable for information originating from a third party.

Blumenthal panned Section 230, calling it “unconscionably excessive.” 

Advocate Kristin Bride, who spoke at the hearing, said her son died by suicide in 2020 after being viciously cyberbullied by his high school classmates, who were using the anonymous apps Yolo and LMK to hide their identities.

Bride filed a lawsuit in federal court following her son’s death, which said the owners of Snapchat, Yolo and LMK must be held accountable. On Tuesday, she said there are other parents who have lost their children to the harms of social media. 

“Let us be clear. These are not coincidences, accidents, or unforeseen consequences,” she said. “They are the direct result of products designed to hook and monetize America’s children.”

Sandhya Raman contributed to this report.

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