On February 14, 2023, the Senate held a full committee hearing in an attempt to discover how to protect our children online. Several witnesses who spoke about either lived experience, scientific research, or implementation practices, stressed the importance of addressing the danger of social media and its role in the mental health crisis. Led by Chair Durbin (D-IL), witnesses gave testimonies and then answered questions from several senators. Ultimately, it was strongly advised that Congress pass the Kids Online Safety Act.

Senator Durbin as well as others made it clear that the negative effects of social media use on children requires a bipartisan call to action. Child sexual exploitation, sex trafficking, introduction to drugs, and general poor mental health, were the main concerns of all witnesses and senators. It is clear that this is a public health imperative and mental health crisis for children. As big tech companies have few regulations, parents and children are left with limited courses of action if a child’s rights are violated.

Senators and witnesses provided several suggestions about how to make social media platforms safer by default. However, while there was consensus concerning passing the Kids Online Safety Act, the exact mechanisms about how to protect children online are still being formulated. Several senators suggested that social media by law should not be available to anyone under the age of 16. Yet, concerns were raised about the actual implementation of this standard. Proposals about utilizing education and reform were also up for discussion. Ultimately, they determined social media platforms must be held accountable and to higher standards.

Speakers discussed the possibility of social media use being like that of addiction in the DSM-5. Furthermore, as technology becomes more available and complex, there is very little parents can do in protecting children from online predators. With the rates of sex trafficking, drug abuse, depression, etc. that stem from social media, our children are clearly endangered. Congress must pass legislation that regulates platforms and stops big tech’s ability to evade responsibility. Additionally, there is not enough investment in online safety research and intervention programs.

By Olivia LaMarco, Policy Intern