Meta, X, TikTok and other social media CEOs testify in heated Senate hearings on child exploitation

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Sexual predators. Addictive symptoms. Suicidality and eating disorders. Unrealistic beauty standards. threat These are just some of the issues young people are dealing with on social media — and children's advocates and lawmakers say companies aren't doing enough to protect them.

On Wednesday, the CEOs of Meta, TikTok, X and other social media companies testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee as lawmakers and parents increasingly worried about the effects of social media on young people's lives.

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The trial began with recorded testimony from children and parents who said they or their children were being exploited on social media. During the hours-long event, parents who lost children to suicide silently held pictures of their dead children.

“They are responsible for many of the dangers our children face online,” US Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, who chairs the committee, said in opening remarks. “Their design choices, their failure to adequately invest in trust and safety, their continued engagement and profit over basic safety put our children and grandchildren at risk.”

During a question-and-answer session with Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Republican Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley asked the CEO of Meta if anyone had personally compensated the victims and their families for what they went through.

“I don't think so,” Zuckerberg replied.

“There are families of victims here,” Hawley said. “Do you want to apologize to them?”

As parents stood up and held up pictures of their children, Zuckerberg turned to them and apologized for what they had gone through.

Hawley continued to press Zuckerberg, asking if he should take personal responsibility for losses caused by his company. Zuckerberg continued the message and reiterated that Meta's mission is to “build industry-leading tools” and empower parents.

“To make money,” Holly cut in.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, the top Republican on the judiciary panel, echoed Durbin's sentiments and said he was willing to work with Democrats to solve the problem.

“After years of working on this issue with you and others, I have concluded the following: Social media companies are dangerous products as they are currently designed and operated,” Graham said.

Executives are told their platforms have enriched lives, but it's time to deal with the “dark side.”

Starting with Discord's Jason Citron, executives touted the security tools their platforms already have and the work they've done with nonprofits and law enforcement to protect minors.

Snapchat broke ranks ahead of the trial and began supporting a federal bill that would create legal liability for apps and social platforms that recommend harmful content to minors. Snap CEO Evan Spiegel on Wednesday reiterated the company's support and urged the industry to support the bill.

TikTok CEO Shou Jie Chew said TikTok is vigilant about implementing a policy to prevent children under the age of 13 from using the app. CEO Linda Yaccarino says X, formerly Twitter, doesn't cater to kids.

“We don't have a business line dedicated to children,” Yaccarino said. She said the company also supports the Stop CSAM Act, a federal bill that would make it easier for victims of child exploitation to sue tech companies.

Yet child health advocates say social media companies have repeatedly failed to protect minors.

“When you're faced with really important security and privacy decisions, the bottom line shouldn't be the first thing these companies consider,” said Zaman Qureshi, co-chair of the youth-led Design It For Us. Coalition advocates for safer social media. “These companies have opportunities to do this before they fail to do so. So independent regulation must step in.”

Dozens of states are suing Instagram and Facebook, which say it intentionally designed features that made children addicted to its platforms and failed to protect them from online predators.

New internal emails released by Senator Richard Blumenthal's office between Meta executives, Global Affairs President Nick Clegg and others have urged Zuckerberg to hire more people to strengthen “well-being across the company” as they worry about the impact on young people's mental health.

“From a policy perspective, this work has become increasingly urgent in recent months. Politicians in the US, UK, EU and Australia are publicly and privately expressing concern about the impact of our products on young people's mental health,” Clegg wrote in an August 2021 email.

The emails released by Blumenthal's office do not appear to contain any response from Zuckerberg. In September 2021, The Wall Street Journal released the Facebook files, its report based on internal documents from whistleblower Francis Haugen who testified before the Senate.

Meta has improved its child safety features in recent weeks, announcing earlier this month that it would begin hiding inappropriate content from teenagers' accounts on Instagram and Facebook, including posts about suicide, self-harm and eating disorders. It also limited the ability of minors to receive messages from people they don't follow or connect with on Instagram and Messenger, and added new “nudges” to discourage teens from browsing Instagram videos or messages late at night. Nudges encourage kids to close the app, though it doesn't force them to do so.

But child safety advocates say its actions from companies fall short.

“Looking back every time there's been a Facebook or Instagram scandal in the last few years, they've been running the same playbook. Meta cherry-picks their stats and talks about features that don't address questionable harm,” said Arturo Bezar, a former director of engineering at the social media giant known for his expertise in curbing online harassment, who recently testified before Congress about child safety. Meta Platforms.

Even though more children use YouTube than any other platform, according to the Pew Research Center, Google's YouTube did not appear on the list of companies called to the Senate on Wednesday. Pew found that 93% of US teenagers use YouTube, followed by TikTok at 63%.

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