Hundreds of families who blame social media for the deaths of their children, teens and young adults penned a letter to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Thursday, demanding he use his influence to pass legislation known as the Kids Online Safety Act to set requirements for Big Tech companies to protect minors from online harm.
“We have paid the ultimate price for Congress’s failure to regulate social media,” the letter says.
It comes more than a week after the CEOs of Discord, Snap, TikTok, X and Meta testified before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing to discuss online child safety.
“Our children have died from social media harms,” the families wrote. “Platforms have done everything and anything to maximize young people’s engagement – including designing products that invite our kids down dangerous and deadly rabbit holes of pro-suicide and eating disorder content; enticing them to attempt dangerous challenges; facilitating sextortion schemes; and implementing design features that leave children more vulnerable to predation, drug dealers, and cyberbullying.”
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“These are not isolated incidents but rather a harrowing reflection of a broader, systemic mental health crisis that demands immediate legislative action,” the letter says. “Last week, many of us traveled to Washington to witness first-hand the historic hearing with social media CEOs. That hearing made clear for the American people what we understand all too well: Unregulated social media has been a disaster for young people’s privacy, safety and wellbeing. Platforms will never make meaningful changes unless Congress forces them to. The urgency of this matter cannot be overstated. If the status quo continues, more children will die from preventable causes and from social media platforms’ greed. We respectfully ask you to leverage your considerable influence and leadership to prioritize the safety of American children and bring the Kids Online Safety Act to a vote in the U.S. Senate.”
Notably, the first of hundreds of signatories on the letter is South Carolina state Rep. Brandon Guffey, who is suing Instagram after his 17-year-old son Gavin died by suicide after falling victim to an extortion group from Nigeria operating through the Meta-owned app. Referencing Guffrey’s case at the Jan. 31 hearing, Ranking Member Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, “You have blood on your hands.” Later, at the urging of Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., Zuckerberg stood mid-hearing and apologized to those seated in the gallery whose family members unknowingly bought fentanyl off social media and died or were victims of eating disorders, self-harm and suicide because of harmful social media content.
The youngest victim whose relatives signed the letter to Schumer was 8-year-old Lalani Erika Walton, of Texas. Her parents are suing TikTok and parent company, ByteDance, alleging the girl died of self-strangulation while participating in the viral “Blackout Challenge,” which encouraged users to choke themselves with belts, purse strings or other similar items until passing out.
Republican and Democratic senators came together in a rare show of agreement throughout the hearing, though it is not yet clear if this will be enough to pass legislation such as the Kids Online Safety Act or other proposed measures intended to protect kids from online harms.
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Schumer is now dealing with the fallout after Senate Republicans resisted approving a bipartisan border bill Wednesday, and afterward, the Majority Leader tried to push ahead to a crucial test vote on a $95 billion package for Ukraine, Israel and other U.S. allies — a modified package with the border portion stripped out.
After the Jan. 31 hearing, a spokesperson for Schumer focused on efforts to “pass the supplemental and keep the government funded in the coming weeks,” while promising the Majority Leader “will continue to work with the sponsors of the online safety bills to ensure the necessary support,” The Hill reported.
With all that on his plate, it is unclear if efforts to hold Big Tech accountable have again fallen to other priorities in the upper chamber.
The Senate floor settled into an hours-long stall Wednesday night as Republicans huddled to see if they could gain the votes necessary to push it through the chamber. Schumer then closed the floor, saying he would “give our Republican colleagues the night to figure themselves out” ahead of a crucial test vote Thursday.
Co-sponsored by Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., the Kids Online Safety Act would require social media platforms to provide minors with options to protect their information, disable addictive product features and opt out of personalized algorithmic recommendations. The bipartisan bill would also create a legal duty for Big Tech companies to prevent the promotion of content about certain topics, such as suicide, eating disorders and self-harm.
According to The Hill, an updated version advanced out of the Senate Commerce Committee in July with nearly half of all senators signing on as sponsors. Yet, the bill has not been called for a floor vote this session or last session. Before last week’s hearing, Blumenthal and Blackburn told reporters they were working with stakeholders on some of the bill’s provisions.
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The version that advanced in July narrowed the definition of duty of care to appease advocates who feared the legislative proposal would do too much to stifle information for teens about sexuality, gender identity and reproductive health care.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.