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Bipartisan safety legislation is designed to protect children online


When Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen released internal company documents showing the tech giant did nothing to mitigate the dangerous effects of social media on kids, it prompted Congress to act. After months of hearings, a pair of senators are now introducing a bipartisan bill aimed at protecting kids online. The legislation will require tech companies to provide families with tools and additional transparency to select what kind of content your kid is seeing. Joining us now to talk about the bill is the bipartisan pair of senators introducing the bill, Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal and Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn.

Senator Blumenthal, let's start with you. Many of the social media platforms out there already have parental controls, so what difference will this legislation make?

RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: They may have what the tech company calls parental controls, but this legislation will give them effective tools to see what their kids are doing, to work with their children. It's not only about empowering parents. It's really giving kids the option to opt out of algorithmic recommendations or disable addictive product features. And these controls will give both parents and children the power to really get back their lives online.

MARTÍNEZ: Senator Blackburn, let's turn to you. Research shows that the impact of social media on kids, especially young girls, can be extremely harmful. Online spaces sometimes are hostile environments that lead to bullying, depression, self-harm and a lot of other things. So how will these new measures target the mental side effects of social media?

MARSHA BLACKBURN: What became very apparent as we talked to mental health professionals, pediatricians, parents, teachers and kids themselves was that when kids are online, kids are the product. And what we heard repeatedly - there needs to be a toolbox that they can use to turn off and to manage and control what they're seeing. Now, what we do know is that some of these platforms have been used by predators and pedophiles to track children, to pull them into adverse relationships. We know that some of these platforms have been used by drug dealers. And this is why you see these guide rails put in place in this legislation. They are placed there to make certain that there is greater safety protections for children when they're online.

MARTÍNEZ: Senator Blackburn, Facebook has already been sending parents notifications of their kids' weekly activity log. Is this part of the controls that you mean to make standard at some point for all social media sites, anything like this, and how are they reacting?

BLACKBURN: Yeah. What you're going to see is these Big Tech companies are going to begin to talk about safety online. They're going to talk about kids' privacy online. They're going to talk about creating that safe environment. But social media will push the envelope until we kind of slap their hand and rein them in.

MARTÍNEZ: So on that, Senator Blumenthal, I know that Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, were on the verge of launching an Instagram Kids app. They got a lot of pushback on that, so it's on hold at the very least. Will the Senate take steps to stop this app from becoming a reality?

BLUMENTHAL: In my view, this bill ought to take action to stop this kind of abuse. And the app aimed at kids, the new developments that target them even more, should be barred if they don't voluntarily come around to the right point of view. Because, as Senator Blackburn said so well, these kinds of practices have real-life consequences, and I think that we need to act much more aggressively. And...

MARTÍNEZ: How would the Senate be able to stop that, Senator? How would the Senate be able to stop a company from making this product?

BLUMENTHAL: Well, our bill imposes a legal responsibility, a standard of care that presumably might well be violated, and that is enforceable by the Federal Trade Commission and attorneys general across the country.

MARTÍNEZ: And, Senator Blackburn, are you on board with that, to be able to stop, say, Meta from creating an Instagram-for-kids type of product?

BLACKBURN: I think that what you have to look at is having the process and the guidelines in place that we have. If they wanted to do something like an Instagram Kids, then they would have to configure it to work within the Kids Online Safety Act. The Kids Online Safety Act would apply to all children from age 17 and under. So you're looking at that age change and not something that is 13 and under. This would cause these companies, like Instagram, that have known of children that were 8 years old that were not supposed to be on Instagram - it would show that they were going to have to be more transparent, they were going to have to face a stricter guideline for any product that they were going to create.

MARTÍNEZ: Senator Blumenthal, just as parents try to keep up with their kids, Congress, it appears, is struggling to keep up with the ever-growing tech industry. So how will this legislation help even the odds a bit, and what else is Congress doing to try and keep up?

BLUMENTHAL: Well, you're absolutely right, and we've tried to design this legislation to be flexible and to foresee the dangers that may arise with advancing technology. But there's also - was the option of amending it. We need to hold Big Tech accountable because they have shown they have put profits above safety, and that's a betrayal of their trust. We can't count on them to police or regulate themselves. We need transparency, safeguards, tools for parents.

MARTÍNEZ: And what about simplicity?

BLUMENTHAL: Absolutely. Simplicity, clarity, transparency have to be watchwords here.

MARTÍNEZ: Senator Blackburn, so clearly this has bipartisan support. Wondering when we might see this bill get a vote.

BLACKBURN: The driver on this is going to be the American people and a lot of moms and grandmoms that are out there that are saying, you know, we want our children to be safe.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal and Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn. My thanks to you both.

BLUMENTHAL: Thank you.

BLACKBURN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.