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‘Time for Congress to act’: Parents confront social media execs about harm to children

Rebecca Barnabi
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Parents who have lost children to exploitation on social media platforms faced off against chief executives in a U.S. Senate hearing Wednesday.

“Big Tech and the Online Child Sexual Exploitation Crisis,” as reported by USA Today, called the heads of Meta (Facebook), TikTok, Snap, Discord and X out on the harmful effects of their social media platforms on American children.

Last year, a U.S. Surgeon General advisory revealed that nearly 95 percent of teenagers between 13 and 17 report use of social media. The advisory revealed benefits of social media for youth, but found evidence that platforms “can also have a profound risk of harm” on the mental health and well-being of children. Tech companies should be held accountable, according to the advisory.

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other tech leaders argued that they are pursuing protective measures to protect children and teens, but advocates and parents present at the hearing did not agree. Zuckerberg also publicly apologized to the parents who have lost children.

“What almost every parent knows is that social media is hurting, and in the most tragic cases, killing our children,” Shelby Knox, Campaign Director at ParentsTogether told USA Today. The nonprofit organization provides independent reporting and commentary on issues that affect kids and families, and told USA Today that Wednesday’s hearing “made clear that no one — from parents to Congress – should buy the lies that these tech companies are selling.”

Five families shared with the Senate how their children became victims of predators on social media.

“My daughter, Olivia, is forever 15 years old because Snapchat connected her with an adult stranger who exploited and took advantage of her,” her mother Despina Prodromidis wrote. “He then convinced her to take a pill which turned out to be pure fentanyl. Snapchat continues to connect kids to adult criminals and drugs. They have failed to stop this themselves; it’s time for Congress to act.”

Matthew Minor, 12, saw a video on TikTok of the “choking challenge” and tried the stunt.

“He tried it, and it killed him. TikTok and other platforms have enabled this deadly viral video to circulate for more than a decade, resulting in hundreds of deaths like Matthew’s. Congress must hold these companies accountable for the lives they have ended and destroyed,” Matthew’s father Todd Minor wrote.

According to Mary Rodee, her son, Riley, was 15 years old when a predator found him on Facebook, shared inappropriate photos with him and tricked Riley into sending inappropriate photos.

“He immediately began to extort Riley for money. The ease and aggression with which he used Facebook’s tools was overwhelming. Just six hours after Riley was blackmailed on Facebook, he died from suicide. Meta has shown they can’t fix their platform on their own – it’s time to make them,” Rodee said.

Neveen Radwan said her 15-year-old daughter, Mariam, was almost killed by the algorithms that drive Instagram and TikTok.

“Curious about healthy eating, social media sucked her into a black hole of dangerous content like how to eat less than 500 cals a day or challenges to prove extreme thinness,” Radwan said.

Jazmine Hernandez was 13 years old when she became the victim of “vicious, racist cyberbullying on Instagram,” her mother LaQuanta Hernandez wrote. “Her bullies sent her racist comments and threats, and even photoshopped her head onto Emmit Till’s body. I reported the content to Instagram several times, but they refused to remove it for days. It was terrifying. I was so angry that Instagram wouldn’t take down death threats against a little girl. They make it so easy for anyone to harass, bully and abuse kids on their platform. They must be held accountable.”

Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca J. Barnabi is the national editor of Augusta Free Press. A graduate of the University of Mary Washington, she began her journalism career at The Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star. In 2013, she was awarded first place for feature writing in the Maryland, Delaware, District of Columbia Awards Program, and was honored by the Virginia School Boards Association’s 2019 Media Honor Roll Program for her coverage of Waynesboro Schools. Her background in newspapers includes writing about features, local government, education and the arts.