Social media companies put profits over kids' health, senators say

Washington DC - US senators sounded off against social media platforms and called for action during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday, saying the companies lack accountability and are focused on profits at the expense of children.

Christine McComas, whose daughter Grace took her own life in 2012 after social media bullying, was present at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on protecting kids online.
Christine McComas, whose daughter Grace took her own life in 2012 after social media bullying, was present at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on protecting kids online.  © Collage: IMAGO / ZUMA Wire & 123RF/prima91

The hours-long hearing touched on an array of issues, including: the harms of cyberbullying, the scourge of child sexual abuse material on social media, and mental health issues among youth. It also underscored how there is bipartisan support for taking action on social media platforms, even in a narrowly divided Congress.

Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, condemned big tech and said the companies are exacerbating a mental health crisis among young people, aggravating the issue with toxic content.

"We need to be blunt from the beginning because we know right now the central truth: big tech has relentlessly, ruthlessly pumped up profits by purposefully exploiting kids and (their) parents' pain," he said.

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Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn, of Tennessee, said kids' data is being taken and monetized.

"It is almost as if these social media platforms are operating in the days of the Wild West and anything goes," she said.

Legislative push to regulate social media intensifies

Emma Lembke, a college sophomore at Washington University in St. Louis, said her physical and mental health suffered as her screen time increased.
Emma Lembke, a college sophomore at Washington University in St. Louis, said her physical and mental health suffered as her screen time increased.  © IMAGO / ZUMA Wire

One point of focus during the hearing was legislation known as the Kids Online Safety Act.

Under the legislation, messaging apps and social media services used by kids would be required to provide children with "easy-to-use safeguards" to disable addictive product features and protect personal data.

The legislation also includes a duty-of-care provision for social media services, which will have to act in the best interests of a child and take reasonable measures to mitigate mental health disorders.

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A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 57% of female high school students said they experienced "persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness" during the past year. That figure is the highest percentage in a decade, according to the survey, and is an increase compared to 36% in 2011.

The survey also found that 30% of female high school students "seriously considered attempting suicide" during the past year, the highest rate in a decade. The rate among male high school students was less than half that of females, according to the survey.

Testimony emphasized harms of social media

Kristin Bride, who spoke at the hearing, said her son died by suicide in 2020 after being viciously cyberbullied by his high school classmates.
Kristin Bride, who spoke at the hearing, said her son died by suicide in 2020 after being viciously cyberbullied by his high school classmates.  © IMAGO / ZUMA Wire

Emma Lembke, a college sophomore at Washington University in St. Louis, spoke at the hearing and recalled creating her first social media account on Instagram in the sixth grade. She said her physical and mental health suffered as her screen time increased.

"The constant quantification of my worth through likes, comments and followers heightened my anxiety and deepened my depression," she said. "As a young woman, the constant exposure to unrealistic body standards and harmful recommended content led me towards disordered eating and severely damaged my sense of self."

The hearing also turned attention to a provision in the law known as Section 230, which in general prevents providers from being liable for information originating from a third party.

Blumenthal panned Section 230, calling it "unconscionably excessive."

Advocate Kristin Bride, who spoke at the hearing, said her son died by suicide in 2020 after being viciously cyberbullied by his high school classmates, who were using the anonymous apps Yolo and LMK to hide their identities.

Bride filed a lawsuit in federal court following her son’s death, which said the owners of Snapchat, Yolo and LMK must be held accountable. On Tuesday, she said there are other parents who have lost their children to the harms of social media.

"Let us be clear. These are not coincidences, accidents or unforeseen consequences," she said. "They are the direct result of products designed to hook and monetize America's children."

If you or someone you know need help or is struggling with a mental health crisis or emotional distress, please call the Mental Health Hotline at 1-866-903-3787 for free and confidential support. You can also text "HOME" to 741741 anytime for the Crisis Text Line and access to live, trained crisis counselors.

Cover photo: Collage: IMAGO / ZUMA Wire & 123RF/prima91

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