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Senate Judiciary Committee Holds Tense Hearing About Online Child Safety and Social Media Usage

Courtesy of USA Today

At a time when 5.04 billion people around the globe are active on social media, the CEOs of the most popular companies — such as Instagram, X, TikTok, and more — are under an unparalleled amount of scrutiny. This pressure stems from the widespread and ever-increasing exploitation of children online. This phenomenon was on full display at the recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearing about online child safety and social media usage. 

Senators spent roughly four hours grilling the CEOs of Meta, TikTok, X, Discord, and Snapchat, prying for answers on how they planned to protect young users and whether or not they supported different pieces of legislation aimed to do just that. During the hearing, the Committee, led by Chair Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Ranking Member Lindsey Graham (R-SC), emphasized the fundamental failure of these companies to self-regulate and protect children from exploitation. 

According to John Shehan, head of the exploited children division at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, instances of child sexual abuse material on online platforms soared to a record high of 36 million in 2023. Despite years of government efforts to eliminate this content from the Internet, it seems technological advancement is eclipsing adequate regulation. In the audience of the Hearing were parents of children who had committed suicide as a result of content they were exposed to and the adverse mental health effects they suffered as a result of heavy social media exposure and use. In a poignant moment, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg was asked by Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) to apologize directly to the families of these children, to which he responded by turning around to face them, acknowledging their suffering and emphasizing his company's efforts to improve “industry-wide” safety measures on their platforms. Zuckerberg seemed to be on the receiving end of most of the lawmakers' frustration. Senator Hawley also pressed Zuckerberg to set up a fund of his own money to compensate families of children harmed by Meta platforms and accused him of prioritizing profit over lives, claiming that Meta’s products are responsible for killing people. Zuckerberg did not commit to starting a fund of this nature. 

TikTok CEO Shou Chew also faced questions about his company's potential ties to the Chinese Communist Party, as it is owned by parent company ByteDance. Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) was criticized for his repetitive questioning of Chew’s background and citizenship, specifically his demands to know of Chew’s personal connection to the CCP, despite the CEO’s frequent clarification that he is Singaporean, and thereby not affiliated with China or its government. Lawmakers devoted much of the hearing to questioning these executives on whether or not they would support much of the recently proposed legislation to regulate children’s safety online. The Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA) is one such bill. This act would require social media platforms to implement safety settings by default for minors and mandate them to conduct regular audits to assess risks for children, including exposure to harmful content. When asked by Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) if they would support this legislation, two out of the five CEOs (Linda Yaccarino of X and Evan Spiegel of Snapchat) indicated they favor it, while the rest of the group did not, citing concerns over privacy and the power the government has to control what content minors may view. 

Interestingly, this topic is one that seems to unite Republican and Democrat lawmakers. KOSA was sponsored not only by Blumenthal but also by Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN). Senators from both sides of the aisle pressed the group of CEOs with equal force, with Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) accusing Zuckerberg’s Meta of deliberately using algorithms to push harmful content and Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) exclaiming that the tech honchos have “blood on their hands.” Graham also commented on the tremendous amount of bipartisan collaboration that has occurred on the issue. 

As an election looms, one that has already divided Americans greatly across party lines, the issue of social media regulation for the protection of children presents a unique opportunity for lawmakers to put their differences aside. The path to a better, safer, and more trusted online experience for American children seems clear; however, the process of getting there is more complicated. For these bills to pass, they must make it through both halls of Congress and the President’s desk. Big Tech is sure not to allow that to happen without putting up a fight in the form of billion-dollar lobbying efforts. Regardless, this moment is one of rare bipartisanship in American politics and serves as a model for functional governance. 

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