US Senate blasts Meta, TikTok and other social media CEOs for not doing enough to protect children

‘I’m sorry for everything you have all been through’ Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg told the parents who lost children to suicide

CEOs testify before Senate committee on child exploitation
Meta's CEO Mark Zuckerberg, X Corp's CEO Linda Yaccarino,TikTok's CEO Shou Zi Chew and Discord's CEO Jason Citron are sworn in during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on online child sexual exploitation at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., January 31, 2024.EVELYN HOCKSTEIN (REUTERS)

Sexual predators. Addictive features. Self-harm and eating disorders. Unrealistic beauty standards. Bullying. These are just some of the issues young people are dealing with on social media — and children’s advocates and lawmakers say companies are not doing enough to protect them.

On Wednesday, the CEOs of Meta, TikTok, X and other social media companies went before the Senate Judiciary Committee to testify as lawmakers and parents grow increasingly concerned about the effects of social media on young people’s lives.

The hearing began with recorded testimony from kids and parents who said they or their children were exploited on social media. Throughout the hours-long event, parents who lost children to suicide silently held up pictures of their dead kids.

“They’re responsible for many of the dangers our children face online,” U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, who chairs the committee, said in opening remarks. “Their design choices, their failures to adequately invest in trust and safety, their constant pursuit of engagement and profit over basic safety have all put our kids and grandkids at risk.”

In a heated question and answer session with Mark Zuckerberg, Republican Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley asked the Meta CEO if he has personally compensated any of the victims and their families for what they have been through. “I don’t think so,” Zuckerberg replied.

“There’s families of victims here,” Hawley said. “Would you like to apologize to them?”

Parents attending the hearing rose and held up pictures of their children. Zuckerberg stood as well, turning away from his microphone and the senators to address them directly.

“I’m sorry for everything you have all been through. No one should go through the things that your families have suffered,” he said, adding that Meta continues to invest and work on “industry-wide efforts” to protect children.

But time and time again, children’s advocates and parents have stressed that none of the companies are doing enough.

“Meta’s general approach is ‘trust us, we’ll do the right thing’, but how can we trust Meta? The way they talk about these issues feels like they are trying to gaslight the world, said Arturo Béjar, a former engineering director at the social media giant known for his expertise in curbing online harassment who recently testified before Congress about child safety on Meta’s platforms. “Every parent I’ve met with a kid under 13 is afraid of when their kid is old enough to be in social media.”

Hawley continued to press Zuckerberg, asking if he’d take personal responsibility for the harms his company has caused. Zuckerberg stayed on message and repeated that Meta’s job is to “build industry-leading tools” and empower parents.

“To make money,” Hawley cut in.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham, the top Republican on the Judiciary panel, echoed Durbin’s sentiments and said he’s prepared to work with Democrats to solve the issue.

“After years of working on this issue with you and others, I’ve come to conclude the following: social media companies as they’re currently designed and operate are dangerous products,” Graham said.

He told the executives their platforms have enriched lives but that it is time to deal with “the dark side.”

Beginning with Discord’s Jason Citron, the executives touted existing safety tools on their platforms and the work they’ve done with nonprofits and law enforcement to protect minors.

Snapchat had broken ranks ahead of the hearing and began backing a federal bill that would create a legal liability for apps and social platforms who recommend harmful content to minors. Snap CEO Evan Spiegel reiterated the company’s support on Wednesday and asked the industry to back the bill.

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew said TikTok is vigilant about enforcing its policy barring children under 13 from using the app. CEO Linda Yaccarino said X, formerly Twitter, doesn’t cater to children.

“We do not have a line of business dedicated to children,” Yaccarino said. She said the company will also support Stop CSAM Act, a federal bill that make it easier for victims of child exploitation to sue tech companies.

Yet child health advocates say social media companies have failed repeatedly to protect minors.

“When you’re faced with really important safety and privacy decisions, the revenue in the bottom line should not be the first factor that these companies are considering,” said Zamaan Qureshi, co-chair of Design It For Us, a youth-led coalition advocating for safer social media. “These companies have had opportunities to do this before they failed to do that. So independent regulation needs to step in.”

Republican and Democratic senators came together in a rare show of agreement throughout the hearing, though it’s not yet clear if this will be enough to pass legislation such as the Kids Online Safety Act, proposed in 2022 by Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee.

New internal emails between Meta executives released by Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s office show Nick Clegg, president of global affairs and others asking CEO Mark Zuckerberg to invest in hiring additional people to “strengthen our position on wellbeing across the company” as concerns grew around social media’s effects on youth mental health.

“From a policy perspective, this work has become increasingly urgent over recent months. Politicians in the U.S., U.K., E.U. and Australia are publicly and privately expressing concerns about the impact of our products on young people’s mental health,” Clegg wrote in an August 2021 email.

He wrote that the company is “being held back” by a lack of investment in these efforts, “which means that we’re not able to make changes and innovations at the pace required to be responsive to policymaker concerns.” Among the problem areas the email notes are “problematic use” of the apps, such as excessive use, as well as bullying and harassment and suicide and self-injury.

The emails released by Blumenthal’s office don’t appear to include a response, if there was any, from Zuckerberg. In September 2021, The Wall Street Journal released the Facebook Files, its report based on internal documents from whistleblower Frances Haugen, who later testified before the Senate.

Clegg circled back on the August email in late last year, proposing a scaled-down investment and telling Zuckerberg that the funding is important to ensure the company can back up its “external narrative of well-being on our apps.” It’s not clear if there was a response from the CEO.

The company has been beefing up its child safety features in recent weeks, announcing earlier this month that it will start hiding inappropriate content from teenagers’ accounts on Instagram and Facebook, including posts about suicide, self-harm and eating disorders. It also restricted minors’ ability to receive messages from anyone they don’t follow or aren’t connected to on Instagram and on Messenger and added new “nudges” to try to discourage teens from browsing Instagram videos or messages late at night. The nudges encourage kids to close the app, though it does not force them to do so.

But critics and child safety advocates say its actions fall short of meaningful changes that would address kids’ safety.

“Looking back at each time there has been a Facebook or Instagram scandal in the last few years, they run the same playbook. Meta cherry picks their statistics and talks about features that don’t address the harms in question,” said Arturo Béjar, a former engineering director at the social media giant known for his expertise in curbing online harassment who recently testified before Congress about child safety on Meta’s platforms.

“Instagram promises features that end up hidden in settings that few people use. Why is ‘quiet mode’ not the default for all kids?” Béjar added. “Meta says that some of the new work will help with unwanted advances. It is still not possible for a teen to tell Instagram when they’re experiencing an unwanted advance. Without that information how can they make it safer?”

Google’s YouTube is notably missing from the list of companies called to the Senate Wednesday. That’s even though more kids use YouTube than any other platform, according to the Pew Research Center. Pew found that 93% of U.S. teens use YouTube, with TikTok a distant second at 63%.

“The thing about YouTube is that it kind of flies under the radar,” said Larissa May, the founder and executive director of the nonprofit #HalfTheStory, which helps teens develop healthy relationships with technology. “I think Meta has gotten so used to taking so much of the heat for the issues that young people are facing. But it’s actually much, much bigger than that.”

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