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Contributed commentary by Sen. Marsha Blackburn on the importance of children’s online safety as they return to school:
As students return to school this month, the Internet will be their constant companion. From in-class assignments to homework to after school activities, making sure our kids can complete these tasks safely is a critical issue. It’s no secret that children and teenagers are more glued to their screens than ever before – children ages 8 to 12 spend an average of over five hours per day on their screens while teenagers spend an average of over eight hours on their screens every day. When your child is online, they are the product, and websites like Facebook, TikTok and Snapchat are trying every method possible to harvest and sell your kids’ data. Every parent and grandparent should feel uneasy about this. That’s why I am working to protect kids and teens online, and raising as much awareness as I can about the various steps you can take to protect their “virtual you.”
Your first plan of action as a parent or grandparent should be to have your child delete TikTok. It may seem like harmless fun, but in reality, their data may not be safe. The Chinese Communist Party has access to TikTok creators’ data, and according to a former employee, the Chinese company maintains access to TikTok user data in its entirety.
Secondly, families must be vigilant about bad actors online. Every day, scammers and predators are taking advantage of vulnerable kids and teens. This is a significant issue – in 2021, kids under the age of 20 lost over $100 million to online scams. To protect your child’s identity online, encourage your child to keep their software up to date and use strong and unique passwords, reinforced by multi-factor authentication, for every one of their accounts. Teach your child to avoid clicking on unknown links and not to give money to unknown people or organizations. If your child is the victim of a scam or attack, contact law enforcement immediately.
Finally, create guidelines for your kids. Explain to them the dangers of sharing personal information and talking to strangers online. Double check the privacy settings on your kids’ profiles, and don’t forget that if your child is under 13 years old, they need your permission before creating profiles on most platforms.
Parents should do all they can to enforce that age limit. The statistics regarding social media use and mental health issues among youth are staggering. Almost half of U.S. teens have experienced bullying or harassment online, according to a 2022 Pew survey. Between 2010 and 2019, teen depression rates doubled, with teenage girls seeing the sharpest increase. In 2021, the CDC reported that almost a third of girls said they seriously considered attempting suicide.
I have heard from countless parents, particularly mothers, whose children have experienced online abuse. Some of these terrible incidents have even resulted in loss of life. Kristin Bride lost her 16-year-old son after he was cyberbullied, and 15-year-old Mason Bogard died after trying to mimic a “choking challenge” he saw on social media. Tracy Kemp’s son experienced persistent racial bullying online. These stories are only a drop in the bucket. When Senator Blumenthal and I led the Commerce Committee’s Consumer Protection Subcommittee, we held five hearings where we investigated the dangers children face online. During those hearings, we produced over 500 pages of testimony from dozens of witnesses that showed the pernicious impact that Big Tech has had on kids and teens. The evidence before us could not be more clear: Big Tech has refused to protect our kids. These hearings only further motivated Senator Blumenthal and I to continue to push for legislative action.
Protecting kids online has been a key priority of mine for over a decade. In the House, I led the fight to enact consumer data privacy legislation and rein in tech’s Section 230 immunity shield. Now in the Senate, I am continuing this work. My bipartisan legislation with Senator Richard Blumenthal – the Kids Online Safety Act – unanimously passed the Senate Commerce Committee and is advancing to the Senate floor. The bill would mandate that social media companies enable the strongest safety settings by default, give children the ability to turn off addictive product features and opt out of algorithmic recommendations, and would equip parents with new tools to protect their child’s safety online. These are life-saving reforms that will positively transform the online landscape for families.
This journey has been far from easy. We have stood our ground in the face of aggressive lobbying and flagrant lies from big tech companies, uniting 43 members of the U.S. Senate and gathering the endorsements of over 240 organizations, including parents, tech experts, faith leaders, pediatricians and child psychologists in support of our legislation. As our nation’s children strap on their backpacks and prepare for another school year, I look forward to getting the Kids Online Safety Act across the finish line. Our precious children deserve it.