Officials from Youtube, Snapchat and TikTok Testify to Senators on Child Online Safety

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Today in Capitol Hill, Senators accused social media apps of endangering teens by allowing them to buy illegal drugs too easily or to be bullied or by encouraging them to harm themselves by it. that they see online. This is Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal.


RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: More eyeballs means more dollars. All you do is add users, especially children, and keep them on your apps for longer.

CHANG: Senator Blumenthal was speaking to the makers of YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat, all apps popular with teens. To learn more about today’s testimony, we’re now joined by NPR Tech correspondent Shannon Bond.

Hi, Shannon.


CHANG: Okay, so tell us in addition to some of the specific examples that senators have raised of how these apps directly harm children or adolescents.

BOND: Yes. So, Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar spoke about talking to the mother of a teenager who died after buying pain relievers from someone on Snapchat who was found to contain fentanyl. And, you know, Snapchat replied that, you know, it’s just devastating. It is dedicated to removing all drug dealers from its platforms, but has also said that this is not a problem unique to its app. When it comes to TikTok – which a lot of people probably associate with, you know, dance videos, comedy skits – Republicans Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Ted Cruz of Texas really focused on national security fears. They asked the TikTok representative about how much data he shares with China, as TikTok’s parent company ByteDance is based in Beijing. And…

CHANG: Right.

BOND: You know, says TikTok, it’s been saying for a long time that it stores US user data outside of China.

CHANGE: Okay. Well, YouTube is bigger than TikTok or Snapchat, and I’m curious. What questions were senators asking for YouTube?

BOND: Yes. We focused a lot on this idea of, you know, kids getting shot in rabbit holes, you know, giving examples of – you know, you could look for a video on dieting tips. , then we’ll recommend some extreme eating disorder videos. YouTube says it bans videos that glorify or promote eating disorders, but senators have come armed with many examples. And more generally, lawmakers want to know how the algorithms of these companies work, how they are used to hook children to these applications where they risk being exposed to really dangerous content. And senators remained frustrated. You know, afterwards Senator Blumenthal told reporters that he believes YouTube has avoided making specific commitments, although I will say that all three companies have said they will share data and research. We don’t really know what it will look like.

CHANGE: Okay. Well, you mentioned that senators on both sides of the aisle have raised concerns. But are legislators proposing concrete solutions to this?

BOND: Well, there are a ton of bills in the House and Senate right now that seek to harness technology. And today, several senators tried to determine whether companies supported some of these measures. So here’s Democrat Ed Markey of Massachusetts adding – asking Snapchat’s Jennifer Stout what she thinks about her proposal to expand children’s privacy.


ED MARKEY: So you’ve had the opportunity to check out the children’s online privacy update that I presented. It has been around for years. Do you support it or not?

JENNIFER STOUT: I think, senator, we would like to talk to you a little more about some of the issues …

MARKEY: No, no. We talked – listen. This is precisely what drives us crazy. We want to talk. We want to talk. We want to talk. This bill has been around for years, and you still have no opinion on it.

BOND: And you can hear the frustration as he talks about redesign …

CHANG: Yeah.

BOND: … The law that was originally passed over 20 years ago, before any of these companies even existed.

CHANG: Well, how did these companies defend themselves throughout today’s hearing?

BOND: Well, look. There was a big elephant in the room today, which is, of course, Facebook. This is the same committee that heard from the Facebook whistleblower who leaked documents showing, among other things, that the company has studied the harmful effects of its Instagram app on adolescent mental health. And so we heard from all three companies today taking great care to distance themselves from Facebook. Snapchat talked about being built differently, you know, not showing you a bunch of posts that you might be interested in, but rather opening up on a camera. YouTube shared how they created an entirely separate app for kids under 13, you know, with no autoplay video. But Blumenthal didn’t buy it.


BLUMENTHAL: Being different from Facebook is no defense. This bar is in the gutter. It is not a defense to say that you are different. What we want is not a race to the bottom but a real race to the top.

BOND: And that really reflects the tone here. You know, senators are skeptical that these companies have the best interests of young users at heart.

CHANG: Okay, Shannon. So what should we be looking for next?

BOND: Well, Blumenthal wants Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to come and testify about the whistleblowers’ disclosures. But listen, Ailsa. Overall, there is no indication that any of these companies are focused on attracting younger users. Their future depends on the capture of this generation. And Zuckerberg said yesterday, you know, his business is refocusing on attracting users under the age of 30.

CHANG: It’s Shannon Bond from NPR.

Thanks, Shannon.

BOND: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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