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US Senate panel grills social media CEOs over harmful impact on children

The CEOs of Meta, TikTok, Snap, Discord, and X went before the Senate Judiciary Committee to testify about the effects of social media on children  

US Senate panel grills social media CEOs over harmful impact on children
[Source photo: Chetan Jha/Press Insider]

A United States Senate panel quizzed social media executives over the harmful effects of their platforms on kids as concerns over self-harm among children due to online bullying rise.  

The CEOs of Meta, TikTok, Snap, Discord, and X (formerly Twitter) went before the Senate Judiciary Committee to testify about the effects of social media on kids. 

While Mark Zuckerberg of Meta and TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew voluntarily agreed to testify, the heads of Snap, X, and Discord appeared after being issued subpoenas.

There is a growing concern among activists and lawmakers about the harmful impact on children, including bullying, extortion, and sexual harassment, as social media platforms employ addictive features to persuade users to spend more time online. 

The hearing commenced with the committee showing a video featuring children sharing their experiences of bullying on various social media platforms. Senators narrated stories of young individuals resorting to self-harm or suicide after falling victim to extortion or other forms of exploitation on social media. 

Many of the families whose children have gone through a major ordeal, including self-harm, were present in the gallery. Some families who lost children to suicide due to social media held up pictures of their dead kin. 

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg issued a public apology to them during the hearing, prodded by Republican Senator Josh Hawley. 

Hawley, in an intense exchange with Zuckerberg, accused Meta’s products of being responsible for harming individuals, bluntly stating, “Your product is killing people.” 

Meta owns popular Instagram, Facebook, and WhatsApp. 

Responding to Hawley’s call for an apology, Zuckerberg stood up, turned to the families present, and said, “I’m sorry for everything you have all been through. No one should go through the things that your families have suffered, and this is why we invest so much, and we are going to continue doing industry-wide efforts to make sure no one has to go through the things your families have had to suffer.”

Forty-one states in the United States have sued Meta alleging that the company’s social media platforms harm children’s mental health by building addictive features into their products.

The hearing further explored the responsibility of tech companies in addressing the negative consequences of their platforms.

The CEOs were questioned on their content moderation practices, with Meta and TikTok revealing they each employ around 40,000 content moderators. Snap, X, and Discord also emphasized their commitment to ensuring a safe online environment, saying they employ 2,300, 2,000, and “hundreds” of moderators, respectively. 

While the hearing predominantly focused on child protection measures against online exploitation, senators took advantage of the opportunity to question the CEOs of on various aspects of their platforms.

TikTok’s Chew faced inquiries about data privacy, specifically whether the platform, owned by Chinese company ByteDance, shares US users’ data with the Chinese government. He denied the allegations and clarified his lack of affiliation with the Chinese Communist Party.

In his opening remarks, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin who chairs the committee, said the social media companies are responsible for many of the dangers children face online. 

“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,” he said. 

The hearing also touched on proposed legislative measures aimed at holding tech companies accountable for the content posted on their platforms. 

The executives were asked about their support for pending bills related to online safety, highlighting the need for regulatory frameworks to address the challenges posed by social media.

Linda Yaccarino, the CEO of X, said her platform does not cater to children.

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

The hearing underscored the urgent need for bipartisan legislation to regulate online platforms. 

South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham, a Republican, said he is 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.

Graham also questioned Jason Citron of Discord on whether he would support the bills related to online safety going through Congress. 

Citron showed apprehensions about most of the bills. 

“So here you are. If you’re waiting on these guys to solve the problem, we’re gonna die waiting,” Graham said. 

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