Big Tech's danger to kids finally aligns Democrats, Republicans
House lawmakers on both sides of the aisle find something to agree on, and it's an issue that Facebook and Google can't ignore.
Richard NievaFormer senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Queenie Wong was a senior writer for CNET News, focusing on social media companies including Facebook's parent company Meta, Twitter and TikTok. Before joining CNET, she worked for The Mercury News in San Jose and the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon. A native of Southern California, she took her first journalism class in middle school.
ExpertiseI've been writing about social media since 2015 but have previously covered politics, crime and education. I also have a degree in studio art.Credentials
More than once over the course of a five-hour hearing before Congress on Thursday,
parenting style became a point of focus for angry lawmakers. One House Republican asked if he had issues with his young daughters watching
. Another asked if he lets them use Facebook's own services.
"My daughters are five and three, and they don't use our products," Zuckerberg said, before adding that he lets his older child use Facebook's chat app for kids.
The exchange typified a common refrain as the leaders of Facebook,
and Twitter weathered a grilling from Congress -- the fourth such event in the last year where a Big Tech CEO took the hot seat -- over the misinformation that flows through their platforms. While lawmakers tried to advance their disparate agendas, one bipartisan theme emerged among Democrats and Republicans who are usually bitterly divided: the danger of Silicon Valley's services on children.
"Big tech is essentially handing our children a lit cigarette and hoping they stay addicted for life," said Rep. Bill Johnson, an Ohio Republican. Rep. Kathy Castor, a Democrat from Florida, peppered the CEOs with statistics that show a rising level of depression and suicidal thoughts among adolescents that coincides with the rise of social media.
Historically, Big Tech products have been reserved for people 13 and older. But in the past few years, companies like Google and Facebook have tried to push the bounds of those limits, creating services for younger and younger kids. (Twitter, primarily used by older users, evaded scrutiny on the issue.)
Technical issues like content moderation or the opaque advertising model of social networks are hard concepts to grasp, so lawmakers have glommed on to an issue that's more visceral and universal in nature: the safety of our children. It isn't a topic that the tech executives can easily swat away.
"These hearings reflect an emboldened Congress and a tech industry that's on the defensive because the companies know that serious regulation and legislation is coming," said Jim Steyer, CEO of Common Sense Media, a child advocacy nonprofit. "No one is going to take Mark Zuckerberg seriously as a voice for parents, but the truth is our kids lives are being dramatically shaped by social media and internet platforms."
'You exploit and profit'
Silicon Valley companies have received blowback in the past when they've waded into kids products. YouTube Kids faced controversy in 2017 when the service's filters failed to recognize some videos that feature disturbing imagery but are aimed at children -- like Mickey Mouse lying in a pool of blood, or PAW Patrol characters bursting into flames after a car crash. Facebook's Messenger for Kids, meanwhile, suffered a bug in 2019 that let children join group chats with strangers.
Critics accuse Google and Facebook of skirting the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA, a federal law that regulates user data collection from sites with users who are under 13 years old. In 2019, the US Federal Trade Commission slapped the company with a record $170 million fine, as well as new requirements, for YouTube's violation of COPPA. In response, the video site made major changes to how it treats kids videos, including limiting the data it collects from those views.
The pushback from Congress on Thursday comes as lawmakers have drafted other legislation that deals with Silicon Valley's treatment of kids.
In September, Castor introduced the Kids Internet Design and Safety (KIDS) Act, in the House. This bill banned "auto-play" sessions on websites and apps geared for children and young teens. The legislation also banned push alerts targeting children and prohibited platforms from recommending or amplifying certain content involving sexual, violent, or other adult material, including gambling or "other dangerous, abusive, exploitative, or wholly commercial content."
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, who asked Zuckerberg if his kids use Facebook products, has introduced the Big Tech Accountability Platform, which is a road map for how Republicans are approaching regulating the tech industry. While Republicans are still concerned about the censoring of conservative voices online, they also are concerned with how the big platforms use their algorithms "to drive addiction," as well as the role the companies play "in child grooming and trafficking."
"Remember, our kids -- the users -- are the product," McMorris said Thursday. "You -- Big Tech -- are not advocates for children. You exploit and profit off them."