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Lawmakers Clash with Tech Executives Over Concerns About Youth Mental Health Impacts of Social Media
Lawmakers from different sides of the political spectrum accused social media companies of neglecting young people’s safety online during a contentious Senate hearing. They called for regulations that would hold Big Tech accountable for issues like youth suicides and child sexual exploitation.
The hearing, held by the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington, D.C., was part of a bipartisan effort to increase federal regulations on platforms such as Instagram and TikTok. Parents and mental health experts have raised concerns about the negative impact these services have on youth well-being, including instances where young people were pushed to suicide.
During the hearing, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, at the request of Republican Senator Josh Hawley, apologized to the parents in attendance who said their children had been harmed or died because of his company’s algorithms. Zuckerberg, who owns Facebook and Instagram, expressed remorse for the suffering experienced by these families.
Senators argued that the companies, as well as the tech executives themselves, should be legally responsible for instances of abuse and exploitation. They advocated for stricter regulations that would limit children’s access to social media platforms and reduce their exposure to harmful content.
According to Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, the platforms do a poor job of self-policing. He emphasized the role of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which gives social media platforms the power to moderate content and often protects them from liability for user-generated posts. Whitehouse argued that these legal protections contribute significantly to the problem.
Whitehouse referred to a dismissed lawsuit against X, formerly known as Twitter, as an example. The lawsuit was filed by two individuals who claimed they were manipulated into sharing explicit videos of themselves on Snapchat as minors. The videos later appeared on Twitter, but the company allegedly did not take action until the Department of Homeland Security intervened. The Ninth Circuit dismissed the lawsuit in May, citing Section 230.
In his opening statement, Senator Dick Durbin provided a damning account of the harm inflicted on young people by each of the social media platforms represented at the hearing. Durbin highlighted instances of grooming, pedophilia, extortion, and child sexual abuse materials, which occurred on Discord, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, and X, respectively.
During the hearing, Discord CEO Jason Citron claimed that the company has a zero tolerance policy for content featuring sexual exploitation. He mentioned that the platform uses filters to scan and block such materials.
A number of regulatory bills aimed at social media companies have been introduced, but have yet to become law. One of these bills is the Kids Online Safety Act, which would require social media companies and online services to take measures to protect children from cyberbullying, sexual exploitation, and self-harm promotion. The bill also calls for stricter privacy settings for teenagers on these platforms. Other proposed bills include one that would require social media companies to report suspected drug activity to the police and another that would hold them accountable for hosting child sexual abuse materials.
The tech executives testified that they have implemented measures to protect children using their platforms, such as content restrictions, limited screen time, and communication restrictions. However, they aimed to distance their services from the harms in order to avoid regulations.
Zuckerberg cited a recent analysis by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which found a lack of evidence to support a causal link between social media use and negative mental health outcomes in young people. According to Zuckerberg, the scientific research on this topic is complex.
The lawsuit filed by 42 state attorneys general against Meta in October alleged that the company intentionally designed features to addict children to its services. U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued an advisory warning about the risk of harm to youth mental health posed by social media sites. The advisory suggested the inclusion of warning labels on these platforms. Internal research from Meta, which was leaked earlier this year, also revealed the negative impact of Instagram on teenage girls’ body image and mental health.
Republican lawmakers focused on criticizing TikTok for its connections to the Chinese government and its data collection practices involving U.S. citizens. The Justice Department is reportedly investigating allegations that ByteDance, the Chinese company that owns TikTok, used the app to surveil American journalists.
In response to these concerns, TikTok CEO Shou Chew mentioned an initiative called “Project Texas” that aimed to prevent Chinese employees from accessing personal data about U.S. citizens. However, employees have claimed that the company struggled to fulfill its promises.
In terms of platform usage, a 2023 Gallup survey found that teenagers spend the most time on YouTube and TikTok. However, Neal Mohan, the CEO of YouTube, was not called in for testimony.
Mainstream social media platforms have also been exploited for domestic online extremism. In an example cited during the hearing, a teenager accused of a mass shooting at an Iowa high school had an active presence on Discord. Shortly before the shooting, he commented in a channel dedicated to such attacks. He also uploaded a video to TikTok just minutes before the incident.
Josh Golin, the executive director of the nonprofit Fairplay, criticized the tech executives’ testimonies as evasive. He emphasized the importance of passing the Kids Online Safety Act as a means of protecting children from harm.
However, the proposed act has faced opposition from civil rights advocates who argue that it could harm free speech and violate the privacy of internet users. Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn, one of the co-authors of the act, expressed its importance in protecting children from certain content online. The Heritage Foundation, a Conservative think tank, endorsed the legislation.
At the same time, policy analyst Aliya Bhatia from the Center for Democracy and Technology highlighted the complexity of the issue and the difficulty of determining what is harmful for young people. She emphasized that what may be helpful for one youth could be harmful to another.
Senator Lindsey Graham expressed a lack of trust in social media companies’ ability to ensure children’s safety online. He indicated that lawmakers are growing impatient and that relying on the companies to