Moms fuel new drive to blame damage on social media companies

WASHINGTON – For years, Silicon Valley has rebuffed attempts to make internet platforms more accountable for harming youth. Online safety advocates are hoping to turn the tide with a new force: moms.

Moms who say social media has wreaked havoc on their sons and daughters are stepping up efforts to pass legislative remedies, including making personal appeals to lawmakers and working with congressional aides to refine legislation.

The power of the mothers’ lobby was demonstrated in November when about 10 women walked into Senator Maria Cantwell’s (D., Washington) office and demanded to know why they weren’t meeting with the Chair of the Senate Commerce Committee.

Kristin Bride, 56, of Mesa, Arizona, captured a picture of her late 16-year-old son as she approached the front desk. Several other mothers followed, holding their own photos of children whose deaths or struggles they blamed in part on platforms like YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat.

Sen. Maria Cantwell met with the mothers taking action. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Ms. Cantwell “needs to come out here and tell these moms whose kids are dead why their kids don’t matter,” recalls Tracy Kemp, 34, of Lubbock, Texas, who is one of the moms.

Ms. Cantwell’s staff set up a meeting the next day. The senator sat with the moms for an hour, attendees said, hearing from young people who used social media apps to forge connections with drug dealers and predators or choke after attempting a viral “blackout challenge” that has users choking themselves and filming passing.

“Every day that goes on without any checks on this industry, more children will die,” Ms Bride described her message to Ms Cantwell and other lawmakers. Her son died by suicide in 2020, Ms Bride said after receiving a series of anonymous, abusive messages on social media.

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Shortly after the meeting ended, Ms Cantwell instructed her staff to push for children’s online safety provisions to be included in an end-of-year statement.

That last-ditch effort ultimately failed, but supporters said the encounter showed how effective mothers can be when diverse organizations unite for another legislative battle later this year.

“The whole conversation and the tenor of what we were trying to do changed when these moms came along,” said Josh Golin, executive director of advocacy group Fairplay, one of the groups pushing for new guardrails on social media.

Ms Cantwell’s staff said she has always supported an online safety law and has agreed to meet the mothers as soon as she learns of her request.

“Parents need to know that lawmakers aren’t just listening. We want to take action,” Ms Cantwell said in a statement.

Mothers’ representatives have previously dealt with other issues. In the 1980s, Mothers Against Drunk Driving grew into a force that changed both laws and cultural attitudes. Parents of mass shooting victims have organized to push for stricter gun safety laws.

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The child protection measures that Ms Bride and other mothers are now seeking are being driven by a growing awareness of the dark side of social media, fueled in part by disclosures from news organizations like the Wall Street Journal, which reported in 2021 on leaked documents by former Facebook employee Frances Haugen showing that parent company Meta Platforms Inc. knew their platforms were riddled with damaging bugs.

The mothers’ group, who met with Ms. Cantwell, is campaigning behind the Kids Online Safety Act, introduced in 2022 by Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.) and Marsha Blackburn (R., Tenn.). It would require online services to take reasonable steps to prevent and mitigate harm to minors. Tech companies would need to allow young users to restrict direct messaging, location data collection, and autoplay or other potentially addictive features.

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The law stalled last year due to opposition from the tech industry and some liberal interest groups.

The Computer & Communications Industry Association, a trade group whose members include Instagram and Facebook owner Meta Platforms and YouTube owner Alphabet Inc., shares a goal of creating a safer online space, its president Matt Schruers said .

“The only question is how to most effectively achieve it,” he said. Tech companies are already limiting features for young users, he said, but the original legislation would have effectively required platforms to collect more personally identifiable information to verify users’ ages.

The American Civil Liberties Union and groups representing gay and transgender people also opposed the law, saying it could give state and federal officials a tool to hold tech companies liable for promoting content related to transgender issues , as this could affect the mental health of children.

“It’s perfect for frivolous rants,” said Evan Greer, director of progressive advocacy group Fight for the Future, which helped organize the opposition.

Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Marsha Blackburn, who introduced the Kids Online Safety Act, spoke to moms about social media regulations last November. Photo: Senate Democratic Media Center

Mr Blumenthal said he has met with representatives from the transgender community and a new version of the bill will soon be introduced to address these concerns.

“We will do everything we can to prevent unintended consequences,” he said.

The home remains a question mark as many lawmakers there want to prioritize privacy for users of all ages. Even so, the Senate Commerce Committee is likely to pass a version of online safety legislation for children — a goal supported not only by Ms. Cantwell, the committee chair, but also by Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas), the top Republican the plate.

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The mothers, who reached out to Ms Cantwell and other members of Congress last fall, are preparing for the new push.


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The moms formed a working group in early 2021 that is part of the Screen Time Action Network, a coalition of advocates organized by Fairplay. The working group meets monthly and now numbers around 40 people, including mothers of victims and others campaigning for stricter restrictions on social media.

Some of the mothers have provided feedback on bills to congressional staffers. Others are lobbying for states to follow a law California passed last year that created what is called an age-appropriate design code for online apps.

The strategy of mothers telling stories about how their sons and daughters were hurt through social media was particularly effective, participants say, although it takes a toll on the women who have to constantly relive their child’s tragedy, Shelby Knox said , campaign manager for ParentsTogether Action, one of the advocacy groups that organizes mothers’ lobbying.

She recalled pulling some of them aside between meetings and asking, “Hey, this meeting looked tough. Do you want to go to the next one?”

They always have, she said.

Write to Ryan Tracy at [email protected]

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