Zuckerberg apologizes to families of kids harmed online as Senate grills tech CEOs

But the hearing ultimately left a huge question unanswered.

January 31, 2024, 2:03 PM

A group of the nation's top social media executives faced intense questioning from a united Senate committee on Wednesday about the mental health risks their enormously popular platforms pose for young people -- as well as accusations that their companies have failed to protect kids from exploitation and abuse.

Throughout four hours of grilling before the Senate Judiciary Committee, CEOs for some of the world's most widely used digital platforms acknowledged shortfalls and highlighted efforts they've taken to improve them, while pushing back on other criticism.

The senators hammered the CEOs for lobbying efforts that they said have gotten in the way of federal legislation and frequently received loud applause from families of children who died after being ensnared in some of the darkest sides of these sites.

And in a remarkable moment, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg stood up to address those families with a direct apology for what they've endured.

But the hearing ultimately left a huge question unanswered: Even given the bipartisan consensus seen among the senators, will Congress try to impose new regulations on these platforms -- and if so, to what end?

A strong show of support

The Senate Judiciary Committee, in a hearing intended to drum up support for federal legislation to safeguard children from the online world, also heard on Wednesday from X's Linda Yaccarino, TikTok's Shou Chew, Snap's Evan Spiegel and Discord's Jason Citron.

The hearing was held amid heightened concerns about the dangers to young people.

Sexual exploitation of kids online is a growing problem in the U.S.: According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, daily cyber tips of child sexual abuse material online have gone up tenfold in the past 10 years, reaching 100,000 daily reports in 2023.

There are also widespread concerns about the mental health impacts of social media. In a recent advisory by the U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, the nation's top doctor warned that "we don't have enough evidence to say [social media is] safe, and in fact, there is growing evidence that social media use is associated with harm to young people's mental health."

Parents in the room for the hearing on Wednesday were direct evidence of both issues, the senators said.

"Mr. Zuckerberg, you and the companies before us -- I know you don't mean it to be so, but you have blood on your hands," Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said as the hearing kicked off.

That comment prompted applause from families, who held photos of their kids.

"You have a product that's killing people," added Graham, the Republicans' ranking member on the panel.

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta, speaks to victims as he testifies during the US Senate Judiciary Committee hearing "Big Tech and the Online Child Sexual Exploitation Crisis" in Washington, DC, on January 31, 2024.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Later on in the hearing, Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri called on Meta's Zuckerberg to directly apologize to the families in the room.

"They're here. You're on national television ... Would you like to apologize for what you've done to these good people?" Hawley pressed.

Zuckerberg, whose company encompasses Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp among others, then stood up and turned around to address parents.

"It's terrible. No one should have to go through the things that your families have suffered," he told them. "And this is why we invest so much and are going to continue doing industry-leading efforts to make sure that no one has to go through the things your families have had to suffer."

Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., called online child exploitation a "crisis in America" fueled by rapid changes in technology that give predators "powerful new tools" to target kids.

"Their [the digital platforms'] design choices, their failures to adequately invest in trust and safety and their constant pursuit of engagement and profit over basic safety have all put our kids and grandkids at risk," he said in his opening statement.

Graham acknowledged there were positives to the social edia sites, too, but "the dark side hasn't been dealt with."

"It's now time to deal with the dark side because people have taken your idea and they have turned it into a nightmare for the American people," he said.

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta, arrives as audience members hold photos of loved ones, before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing at the Dirksen Senate Office Building on January 31, 2024 in Washington, DC.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

In response, the CEOs largely leaned into highlighting actions they've taken to try to alleviate these problems. Meta recently announced plans to hide content it deems inappropriate for teens and is pushing for age verification when people download their platforms on the App store.

The CEOs of Snap and X both publicly endorsed a prominent bipartisan bill during the hearing, the Kids Online Safety Act.

And Tiktok said it's beefing up investment in safety this year by $2 billion.

But notably, on the discussion of mental health -- which Zuckerberg was largely targeted over following reporting that internal surveys found negative impacts on young girls who use Instagram -- the CEO repeatedly pushed back on any negative link.

"With so much of our lives spent on mobile devices and social media, it's important to look into the effects on teen mental health and wellbeing. I take this very seriously," he said in his opening remarks. "Mental health is a complex issue and the existing body of scientific work has not shown a causal link between using social media and young people having worse mental health outcomes."

Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., pushed Zuckerberg to acknowledge what Ossoff called the "inherent danger" young people face on the internet and his platforms.

"There are families here who have lost their children. There are families across the country whose children have engaged in self harm, who have experienced low self-esteem, who have been sold deadly pills on the internet. The internet is a dangerous place for children. And your platforms are dangerous places for children. Do you agree?" Ossoff asked.

"I think that there are harms that we need to work to mitigate," Zuckerberg replied, but said he believed his platforms were safe for kids.

Sen. John Kennedy, a Republican from Louisiana, told Zuckerberg that his belief should disqualify him from leading the company.

"If you think that Instagram is not hurting millions of our young people, particularly young teens, particularly young women, you shouldn't be driving," he said.

PHOTO: Tech CEO's watch a video of victims before testifying at the US Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, "Big Tech and the Online Child Sexual Exploitation Crisis," in Washington, DC, on January 31, 2024.
Jason Citron, CEO of Discord; Evan Spiegel, CEO of Snap; Shou Zi Chew, CEO of TikTok; Linda Yaccarino, CEO of X; and Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta, watch a video of victims before testifying at the US Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, "Big Tech and the Online Child Sexual Exploitation Crisis," in Washington, DC, on January 31, 2024.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

Moving from talk to action

Wednesday's hearing marked the first time Snap's CEO, Spiegel, provided testimony on Capitol Hill in response to allegations that Snapchat is harming children's mental and physical health.

Snapchat is also being sued in a class action complaint by several parents in California, many of whom say they lost their child to fentanyl poisoning and overdose with pills bought on Snapchat.

Spiegel said he feels "profound sorrow" that his service has been "abused to cause harm."

He also discussed his support for the Kids Online Safety Act during Wednesday's hearing. The "KOSA" bill aims to provide people with legal pathways if they're harmed by social media companies -- hopefully putting more responsibility on the industry to prevent harm, according to the legislation's supporters.

"I want to encourage broader industry support for legislation protecting children online," Spiegel said. "No legislation is perfect, but some rules of the road are better than none."

Relatives of victims hold their portraits before the start of the US Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, "Big Tech and the Online Child Sexual Exploitation Crisis," in Washington, DC, on January 31, 2024.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Yaccarino said X was supportive of KOSA, but Chew, Citron and Zuckerberg didn't commit to backing the bill in its current form.

Legislative efforts at the national level have mostly failed, but state legislators have introduced more than 100 bills across the country that aim to regulate how children interact with social media.

Durbin noted the failure to push federal legislation forward, saying at the hearing that "the tech industry alone is not to blame for the situation we're in. Those of us in Congress need to look in the mirror."

Graham said Republicans are "ready to answer the call."

"These companies must be reigned in, or the worst is yet to come," he said.

Many senators, including Republican Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, a co-sponsor of KOSA, said that it wasn't just about congressional support, though.

"We've been working on this stuff for a decade. You have an army of lawyers and lobbyists that have fought us on this every step of the way," she said to the CEOs. "Are you going to stop lobbying against this and come to the table and work with this?"

While each of the company leaders said they would collaborate on legislation, they largely showed no consensus of support for the various bills being pushed by lawmakers.

X's Yaccarino said she supported the SHIELD Act, which would allow criminal prosecution of people who share others' private images online without consent, and the Stop CSAM Act, a bill to crack down on the proliferation of child sex abuse material.

Asked if he supported the latter measure, Chew said the spirit of the bill is "in line with what we want to do" and would comply if it became law.

Zuckerberg said he agrees with the "goals" in some of the handful of bills, but not the specifics -- and redirected to Meta's own legislative proposal.

ABC News' Ayesha Ali, Tenzin Shakya and Becky Worley contributed to this report.

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