If great power does indeed come with great responsibility, it follows that any subsequent change brings with it the potential for serious consequences should that power fall into the wrong hands.
Over the past few years, we have watched Big Tech solidify its place in the American family. Pandemic lockdowns made access to technology an integral part of work and education; but as use of tech exploded, so did our exposure to the darker, more pernicious effects of mandatory screen time.
Google, TikTok, and other popular companies have all taken their turn in the hot seat, but it is Meta (formerly Facebook) and its constellation of popular social media platforms that has drawn the most criticism for its reckless targeting of young users, and its refusal to protect those users from content that violates not only platform standards, but basic standards of decency.
Over the past year, I have conducted a deep dive into the darkest corners of Meta’s popular Instagram platform to prove that this content is not only accessible, but available free from the restrictions Meta claims it places on accounts owned by children and teens. In multiple hearings with the Senate’s Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, I have listened in horror as executives denied the existence of this problem, and dismissed hard evidence to the contrary as anecdotal. But it’s important for parents, teachers, doctors, and spiritual leaders to know that Big Tech understands what is happening. They’re aware that their platforms are hotbeds for sex trafficking and bullying, and content that glorifies self-harm, drug use, and eating disorders. Furthermore, that knowledge has changed nothing about the way they do business.
Right now, a bipartisan coalition of my Senate colleagues and I are working on reforms that will allow us to protect kids online, and get our arms around content moderation, privacy, and data security problems — but that’s just half the battle. The real fight is happening in the laptops, phones, and hearts of American families, who are now facing an enemy that has already forced its way inside the house.
Protecting our children means recognizing that the dark influences they encounter online have the power to not only damage their mental and spiritual health, but also isolate them from the people who love them most. By playing an active role in understanding why and how they enjoy using these platforms, we can better understand how we can use legislation as a tool to protect kids without tying the hands of companies whose innovation does not come at the expense of their most vulnerable users.