By Gauri Patel
The CEOs of top social media companies testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about child safety on their platforms on Jan. 31, marking the latest effort of lawmakers to address concerns that these platforms prioritize profits over the well-being of their users, according to The Associated Press.
The high-profile hearing comes at a time of increasing concern from parents, lawmakers and online safety advocates over the harmful effects of social media on children. The chief executives, consisting of Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg, TikTok’s Shou Zi Chew, Snap’s Evan Spiegel, Discord’s Jason Citron and X’s Linda Yaccarino, were questioned by the Senate committee about the mental health risks their platforms pose for young people, as well as accusations that their companies have failed to protect kids from exploitation and abuse.
Critics say social media platforms’ tools for protection fall short and hope the hearing will push lawmakers to take decisive action.
The hearing began with a video in which parents and teenagers raised concerns about how children were exploited and affected by the addictive nature of social media, the unregulated presence of sexual predators and the promotion of unrealistic beauty standards that have given rise to mental health issues, such as eating disorders and even suicide. The video also presented recorded testimony from kids and parents who said they or their children were exploited on Facebook, Instagram and X, according to The Associated Press.
In a show of unity, Republican and Democratic senators grilled the CEOs together, with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) telling Zuckerberg he had “blood on his hands,” according to Reuters.
“Mr. Zuckerberg, you and the companies before us, I know you don’t mean it to be so, but you have blood on your hands,” said Graham, drawing applause and cheers from many affected families attending the hearing. “You have a product that’s killing people.”
Many parents who attended held pictures of their children they had lost to suicide after being harmed due to social media. Some parents jeered at Zuckerberg during his opening statement and shouted comments at other times during the hearing.
In a question and answer session with Zuckerberg, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) asked the Meta CEO if he had personally compensated any of the exploitation victims and their families for what they have been through, to which Zuckerberg replied that he “did not think so,” according to The Associated Press.
Hawley then challenged Zuckerberg to apologize to them directly, and Zuckerberg turned towards the parents in the gallery and said his apology. He pledged to work to prevent what they experienced from happening to others but stopped short of taking responsibility for facilitating the abuse, as Hawley suggested he should.
During the hearing, the social media executives touted existing safety tools on their platforms and the steps they have taken to ensure the protection of minors.
Chew said TikTok is vigilant about enforcing its policy that bars children under 13 from using the app, and under questioning by Graham, said TikTok would spend more than $2 billion on trust and safety efforts.
Yaccarino said X does not cater to children, adding that the company will support the Stop CSAM Act. This federal bill makes it easier for victims of child exploitation to sue tech companies and app stores, according to Reuters.
Snap, the company behind the instant messaging app Snapchat, and X also came out in support of the Kids Online Safety Act, proposed in 2022 by Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN). This bipartisan bill establishes provisions to protect children under 17 on social media platforms, such as mandating platforms to provide more reporting tools for parents.
The social media executives reaffirmed their unwavering commitment to enhancing the safety and well-being of young users across their platforms, acknowledging the challenges they face in an ever-evolving digital landscape.
“Just like with all technology and tools, there are people who exploit and abuse our platforms for immoral and illegal purposes,” Citron said during the hearing. “All of us here on the panel today and throughout the tech industry have a solemn and urgent responsibility to ensure that everyone who uses our platforms is protected from these criminals, both online and off.”