Big Tech is incapable of self-governing — Congress must step in

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Sixteen-year-old Carson Bride ended his life after receiving hundreds of threatening and sexually explicit messages from his classmates. At age 15, Grace McComas died by suicide after enduring torture from a young man who drugged and assaulted her before using social media to make her feel scared and worthless. And an ordinary day ended in tragedy for the Bogard family after their 15-year-old son, Mason, attempted to mimic the viral “Choking Challenge.”

There are countless more heartbreaking stories just like these, of kids who have died or been severely harmed on social media. We have heard the immeasurable grief from their families and the resounding frustration about the dark and addictive rabbit holes these young people were pulled down. 

Damning testimony from Meta whistleblower Arturo Bejar has confirmed that Mark Zuckerberg, Adam Mosseri, and other Meta executives were personally warned about millions of teens facing bullying, eating disorder material, illicit drugs, and sexual exploitation within minutes of opening the app. One parent described it as “a firehose of harmful content being sprayed at our kids.” Despite this evidence, Zuckerberg and Meta did not act, but concealed the evidence while raking in record profits.

According to a newly unredacted 2021 Meta Platforms internal presentation, an estimated 100,000 young people were harassed daily with sexual abuse material. 100,000 a day. The internal documents, uncovered in a lawsuit by the state of New Mexico, described how Meta employees knew their “People You May Know” algorithm was intentionally connecting minors with potential predators. Still, they chose to ignore initial recommendations to make modifications. 

Today in the Senate Judiciary Committee, Zuckerberg — along with the CEOs of Snap, TikTok, X, and Discord — will have to answer for their platforms’ role in exploiting kids online. 

But we have already heard empty promises from these companies that they will change, with little action to follow. In the weeks before this hearing, the companies have again rushed to announce new safety features—an all-too-familiar PR ploy before congressional hearings. In fact, their “new” safety features are recycled from past years.  

Here’s the bottom line: Big Tech has proven incapable of appropriately governing themselves, and it’s time for Congress to step in.

Over the last three years, we have carefully crafted the bipartisan Kids Online Safety Act after spearheading a series of five subcommittee hearings with social media companies and advocates about the dangers kids face online. 

Our legislation has one goal: to ensure an online environment for kids that is safe by default. We accomplish that by creating a Duty of Care for those sites that know they are catering to young users. Under the Kids Online Safety Act, online platforms will finally be forced to bear the responsibility for recklessly promoting suicide, bullying, eating disorders, substance abuse, and sexual exploitation. It would put young people and parents back in the driver’s seat by requiring tech companies to provide options to protect a young person’s privacy, disable addictive product features, and opt out of personalized algorithmic recommendations.

This is not a Democrat or Republican issue. Support for the Kids Online Safety Act crosses partisan lines, with 92 percent of Democrats, 84 percent of Republicans, and 81 percent of independents in favor of it. The bill has garnered the endorsement of hundreds of organizations and nearly half of the U.S. Senate. We have welcomed hundreds of young people, parents, and advocates to Capitol Hill, all bringing the same message: change is long overdue.

Parents want to be able to protect their kids, and they have rightfully become discouraged. After Mason Bogard’s death, his mom told us she began searching for the “Choking Challenge” videos across all platforms and has reported hundreds to prevent another tragedy. But these videos remain online and her concern for other children’s safety has been met with automatically generated messages: “the reported content doesn’t violate our Community Guidelines.”

Big Tech companies have made it clear that it is part of their business model to treat underage users like adults and exploit their data at any cost. Meta even calculated its lifetime profit for each teen user, as long as they stay on their apps: $270. But kids’ well-being is worth more than $270, and reform of these companies’ business models is long overdue. That is why 87 percent of Americans believe the president and Congress must take action. 

The Judiciary Committee will demand answers to many warranted questions from the tech CEOs today. But the most important answer must come from Congress in the form of enforceable action—swiftly moving to pass the Kids Online Safety Act into law—to ensure Big Tech changes its practices once and for all. 

Richard Blumenthal serves as the senior senator from Connecticut. Marsha Blackburn serves as the senior senator from Tennessee.

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