WASHINGTON, D.C. – Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agreed that Big Tech CEOs haven't done enough to protect children using social media and that platforms need to be reined in to protect kids from indoctrination and exploitation.
"Tech CEOs have utterly and completely failed to act adequately to protect children online, and that’s the reason why they lost trust," Sen. Richard Blumenthal told Fox News. "They completely squandered their credibility."
"Everyone agrees, Republicans and Democrats, that we need to move forward with rules and safeguards for kids that are in the law and not rely on them to do the right thing," the Connecticut Democrat said.
The chief executives of TikTok, X, Meta, Snap and Discord testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday during a hearing considering what liability the platforms should face if harmful content they host targets or exploits children. The audience included victims and families of victims of eating disorders, self-harm, suicide and drug-related deaths allegedly stemming from harmful social media content.
"The problem gets worse, not better," Sen. Lindsey Graham, the committee's top Republican, told Fox News. During the hearing, he said Meta CEO Mark Zuckerburg had blood on his hands and accused him of defending "a product that's killing people."
"I think we need a system where we have a digital regulatory commission," Graham told Fox News after the hearing.
Zuckerberg apologized to victims' families during the hearing after Sen. Josh Hawley pressed him. The tech giant leader stood up and said "no one should have to go through the things that your families suffered" while facing the audience.
But Rep. Mike Garcia said free speech protections, including Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, have prevented Congress from taking more action to regulate social media. He said Congress needs to work with Big Tech CEOs to establish better protection from "nefarious" content without violating the First Amendment.
"I don’t think we can ever do enough to safeguard our children on social media," the California Republican said. "We got to make sure the protections are in place while still honoring the Constitution."
Rep. Jim Clyburn said Big Tech hasn't protected children and that regulations need to be put in place.
"We need to rein them in," the South Carolina Democrat said.
Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy released an advisory last year, "Social Media and Youth Mental Health," about social media's potential harmful effects on children and adolescents. Increased social media use among 14-year-olds, for example, correlated to poor sleep, poor body image, low self-esteem and higher depressive symptoms, according to a 2022 study cited in the report.
Meanwhile, social media platforms have become increasingly used among teenagers, according to a Pew Research Center survey of over 1,400 13 to 17-years-olds conducted last fall. Nearly all teens surveyed – 95% – used YouTube, over two-thirds – 67% – used TikTok and more than half had Instagram and Snapchat.
"There are obviously a lot of concerns, particularly with the way young children are being targeted for advertising, for indoctrination," Rep. Nicole Malliotakis said, adding that she had elevated concerns about Chinese influence on TikTok.
"We need to see more protection for our children on the internet so they’re not targeted in ways that can hurt them mentally, emotionally or physically," the New York Republican said.
Blumenthal and Sen. Marsha Blackburn, co-sponsors of the Kids Online Safety Act, met with families of cyberbullying and online child exploitation victims on Thursday before the group began a day of advocacy to push lawmakers to enact legislation to safeguard children on social media. The bipartisan Kids Online Safety Act — one of several Senate bills introduced to protect kids from online harm — would give tech companies requirements to keep kids safe from harmful content on social media.
"We have a responsibility to respect children of course, but it starts with parents," Rep. Rich McCormick said. "It’s a slippery slope."
Ramiro Vargas contributed to the accompanying video.