Enough is Enough: Big Tech must be held accountable for endangering our children

Published 10:34 am Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Bullying. Fentanyl trafficking. Suicide content. Sexual exploitation.

For years, these harms have spread like wildfire on social media sites, hurting children and teenagers most of all.

But time after time, Big Tech companies – from YouTube and Instagram to TikTok and Snapchat – have turned a blind eye to how their platforms are exposing minors to harmful content, drug dealers, and child predators.

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Just last month, newly released internal documents revealed that Meta executives refused to take action after learning that their algorithms connected children with potential child predators and that an estimated 100,000 minors were receiving sexually abusive content from adults on their platforms – each day.

For Tennesseans and most Americans, this is an inexcusable failure to protect our nation’s children.

But for social media sites, children aren’t the priority; they are the product. And the more time minors spend on their platforms – hooked in by addictive algorithms, infinite scrolling, and endless push notifications – the more data Big Tech can collect, raising their companies’ profits.

In fact, according to documents from the 42-state lawsuit against Meta, the company assigned a “lifetime value” of $270 for each 13-year-old user and identified tweens as a “valuable but untapped market.” At the same time, the tech giant rolled back safety tools to combat harmful content, dismantled teams responsible for children’s safety, and withheld from congressional oversight damaging information about how millions of teens face bullying, eating disorder content, and sexual abuse on its platforms.

One thing is clear: Big Tech’s business model is about putting profits over children’s safety. And it’s far past time these social media companies faced accountability.

That’s why Senator Blumenthal of Connecticut and I crafted the Kids Online Safety Act, which would provide parents and children with the tools, safeguards, and transparency they need to protect against online harms.

This bipartisan legislation includes crucial provisions to hold social media companies accountable: mandatory audits to ensure that platforms are mitigating harms to children; new tools for parents to identify harmful behavior and report abuse directly to social media sites; and new controls for families to support their children, including to opt out of algorithmic recommendations.

Perhaps most importantly, the legislation would create a duty of care for online platforms to prevent and mitigate specific dangers to minors, including the promotion of suicide, eating disorders, substance abuse, and sexual exploitation.

This legislation is needed now more than ever, especially after the CEOs of five Big Tech companies—Meta, X, Snap, TikTok, and Discord—testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week and continued to make excuses for their failure to protect children online.

In fact, when I asked Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg how a “vast pedophile network” was allowed to grow on Instagram, including content showing teenagers “for sale” to older men, the tech CEO was unable to explain how this content does not violate Meta’s terms of service.

Instead, Zuckerberg insisted that his company is not “perfect.”

That is cold comfort for the countless parents across our country who have lost their children because of social media harms – including Gail Flatt, a Tennessee mother whose 14-year-old daughter, Sarah, took her own life after becoming addicted to social media and suffering from online bullying.

Last week, I met with Gail and many other parents who came to our nation’s capital to call for accountability for Big Tech platforms so that no other parent has to experience the tragedy of seeing their child die after facing bullying, sexual exploitation, the solicitation of illicit drugs, and other abuse on social media platforms.

More than anything else, these parents’ stories are creating real momentum for real change, including for the Kids Online Safety Act. Together, we will hold Big Tech accountable and ensure children can be free to be children again.

(Marsha Blackburn represents Tennessee in the U.S. Senate)