Depression, suicide, exploitation and addiction: Congress grills tech CEOs on child safety issues

Justin Hendrix / Mar 25, 2021

At a joint House Energy and Commerce subcommittee virtual hearing on combating online misinformation and disinformation, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey testified for nearly six hours on topics ranging from COVID19 and vaccine disinformation to the role of the platforms in creating the conditions that led to the January 6th siege on the US Capitol. But a persistent theme from the hearing came from Members- and in particular Republicans- who focused on child safety issues.

"Young American children and teenagers are addicted- actually addicted- to their devices and social media.... Your platforms are purposely designed to keep our children hooked to their screens, said Bob Latta, R-OH and the Ranking Member of the Communications & Technology Subcommittee. "The use social media has been linked to increased depression and suicide among America's youth. Illegal drugs continue to be sold online."

Representative Cathy McMorris-Rodgers, R-WA and the Ranking Member of the Energy & Commerce Committee, used her opening remarks to describe "big tech battles" she fights in her household "every day". "It's a battle for their development, a battle for their mental health and ultimately a battle for their safety," she said, recounting multiple instances of teenagers in her community who have been driven to self harm due to interactions on social media.

Pointing to a range of statistics that indicate deteriorating mental health amongst children and teens and a connection to use of technology, she stated "You haven't done enough. Big Tech has failed to be good stewards of your platforms, Representative McMorris-Rodgers said. "What will it take for your business model to stop harming children?"

Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-FL, Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection confronted Jack Dorsey about the use of his platform to groom children for molestation. "Traffic has increased from bad actors seeking to groom children for molestation, lure females into sex trafficking, sell illegal drugs, incite violence, even threat to murder police officers," said Representative Bilirakis.

Representative Bilikrakis went on to ask Zuckerberg about his plans to launch an Instagram product for kids. "What would be beneficial to our children to launch this kind of service?" asked the Congressman.

"I think helping people stay connected with friends and learn about different content online is broadly positive," replied Zuckerberg.

Representative McMorris-Rodgers went back to her line of questioning "What's left our kids with a deep sense of brokenness," she asked. "Well some studies are confirming what parents in my community already know- too much time on screens and social media is leading to loneliness and despair." She asked Mark Zuckerberg whether he agreed that time in front of screens passively consuming content is harmful to children's health. She then asked Pichai whether his company has conducted research on the effects on children. He pointed to work on the subject with a variety of partners- and Representative McMorris-Rodgers said she "would like to see that."

Representative Kathy Castor, D-FL, who has been working on updates to children's protections, pointed to a JAMA article from 2019 that noted a link between the time spent on social media and depression, an HHS report that noted a disturbing increase in suicides amongst American youth, and a JAMA study from 2020 that found transmission of identifying information that violated the COPPA law. She pressed Mark Zuckerberg on how much money he makes from advertising from children. He replied that children are not allowed on Instagram, a claim she disputed.

"The problem is you know it- and you know that the brain and social development of our kids is still developing at a young age.... but because these platforms have ignored it, they've profited off of it, we're going to strengthen the law."

Rep. Bill Johnson, R-OH, came back to the topic as well- noting a "surge in cyberbullying, child porn" and zeroing in on Facebook's plans to launch an Instagram product for children. "Big is essentially handing our children a lit cigarette, and hoping they stay addicted for life." Representative Johnson went on to make comparisons to the marketing practices of big tobacco.

Similarly, Representative Lori Trahan, D-MA, said "You are actively onboarding our children on to your ecosystems with apps like YouTube kids, Facebook Messenger Kids, and now, we're hearing, Instagram for Kids. these applications introduce our children to social media far too early and include manipulative design features intended to keep them hooked."

Representative Trahan went on to press each of the CEOs on the design features of their sites, such as the autoplay function.

"Another feature of concern is the filter that adds an unnatural but perfect glow for my 10-year-old to apply to her face. Is that feature going to be part of Instagram for Kids?"

"Congresswoman, I don't know," said Zuckerberg.

"I just want to speak mother to father, mother to fathers," she said. "Leading experts all acknowledge that social media sites pose risks to young people, in appropriate content, oversharing of personal information, cyberbullying, deceptive advertising, the list goes on."

Representative David McKinley, R-WV, noted that illicit drugs are sold on the platforms and noted the danger to children. He grew notably frustrated at Mark Zuckerberg's stock answer on his company's efforts to remove such content from his platforms. "We've been dealing with this for three years, Mark," said McKinley. "Well, how many more families are going to die, how many more children are going to be addicted while you still study the problem?"

Zuckerberg said he is "building effective systems," but held that the platforms should be held responsible for building "generally effective systems" to deal with such content.

Representative Morgan Griffith, R-VA noted that data from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children suggests that millions of instances of child exploitation are found on Facebook. Again, Zuckerberg said he thinks the public should not criticize Facebook for sending over millions of instances for review.

"I think you all need an independent industry wide review team like the electronics industry did with the Underwriter's Laboratory 150 years ago," said Griffith.

The focus on child safety follows an earlier hearing on "Child Safety in an Increasingly Digital Age" in the Consumer Protection and Commerce subcommittee that was held earlier this month.


Justin Hendrix
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & ...