The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the law had a hearing on November 7th about social media and the teen mental health crisis. Chairman Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) opened the hearing by introducing the witness, former Director of Engineering for Protection and Care at Facebook turned Meta whistleblower, Aturo Béjar.

Senator Blumenthal described Mr. Béjar as a widely respected expert in his field and a brave advocate for truth before discussing the issue at hand: the impact of social media on the wellbeing of America’s teenagers. While social media creates incredible opportunity for connection, it also removes barriers to bullying, contributes to the development of eating disorders in young people, gives predators the opportunity to contact and solicit children, and negatively impacts the mental health of users. Senator Blumenthal urged his colleagues to join him in supporting the Kids’ Online Safety Act and encouraged them to pay close attention to Mr. Béjar’s testimony, as it would highlight the many ways that Meta is complicit in the bullying and sexual harassment of minors and their refusal to self-regulate, which in the Chairman’s view, makes it the responsibility of American legislators to regulate for them.

Ranking Member Josh Hawley (R-MO) echoed Chairman Blumenthal’s passion for the issue and commitment to a solution, citing some of the numbers that Mr. Béjar had brough to their attention. One in four minors using Meta platforms will experience sexual harassment on them, and one of eight have experienced harassment in the last week. In their own internal reports, Meta acknowledges that they make body image issues worse for teen girls, that teens blame social media use for their mental health struggles, and that teens feel addicted to their platforms, and yet instead of addressing these issues, they’ve swept them under the rug.

Mr. Béjar’s opening remarks reiterated this data and shared that he was prompted to come forward because of his own daughter’s experience with unwanted sexual advances on Instagram. When he had initially left his job at Facebook in 2015, he thought that things were headed in the right direction. Upon learning of her experiences, he decided to return to the company as a consultant, only to see that none of the measures that he and his team had worked to develop had been implemented. In his words, “Meta is fully aware” that kids spend lots of time looking at harmful content that their algorithm recommends, and Mr. Béjar believes that these tech companies need to be held accountable for that. Mr. Béjar emphasized that society does not accept sexual advances on children in the physical world but seems complicit when it happens in the online world. It is not unavoidable, and social media companies need to be required to be more transparent. There are many very actionable steps that can be taken to mitigate these issues.

Chairman Blumenthal then pointed out that Meta recently cut 21,000 jobs in their “year of efficiency” initiative, most of which seemed to be safety and monitoring positions, and asked Mr. Béjar what the impact of that is likely to be. Béjar said that it was an under resourced effort in the first place, and eliminating those jobs only underscores Meta’s refusal to take the effects of their platforms on teens seriously.

Senator Hawley referenced an email sent by Mr. Béjar to Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg informing them of the fact that one in eight children on their platforms had received unwanted sexual advances in the last week and one in four had received advances outside of that window, and the fact that neither executive had met with him or even responded to the message. He then asked Mr. Béjar to talk about the automated safety system that Meta has shifted to. Mr. Béjar explained that algorithms are only as good as their inputs, and these automated systems fail to capture most of the inappropriate content on these platforms.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) reminded committee members and attendees that Meta is no longer two college kids in a garage, but a billion-dollar company that affects the lives of most of the world’s population, and yet society has failed to change the way that it deals with it. Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) delivered an impassioned few words about how social media has “removed the geographical barriers” to harassment, and made it so that bullies can no longer be escaped on the weekend, before asking Mr. Béjar what exactly he would like to see happen. Mr. Béjar responded that he just wanted to see kids protected, and if Meta wasn’t going to prioritize that themselves, then the government was going to have to do it for them.

By Rebekah Lawatsch, Policy Intern