Summer break used to give kids time to explore – camping trips, games of hide and seek, and picnics in the park. But as of late, students with free time on their hands have traded adventure for more screen time. School is almost out, and before the last bell rings, parents and caretakers need to study up on how to keep kids safe online.
It’s no secret that the digital world is dangerous for kids and teens. The risk of online child exploitation rose to an all-time high last year, and more predators are creating fake digital profiles to lure underage victims into risky interactions. But even among their peers, kids suffer in a toxic environment of online bullying, constant comparisons, and never ending viral challenges. Moms and dads have shared with me heartbreaking stories of their children attempting suicide after enduring online torment from classmates, and kids as young as nine years old dying during viral video challenges.
As the Ranking Member of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security, I have questioned Big Tech leaders on their responses to these heartbreaking stories; but over the past year it has become clear to me that the vulnerabilities and mental health impacts their platforms foster aren’t coincidental – they are by design.
Leaked documents showed that Facebook executives knew back in 2020 that their popular Instagram app creates a “perfect storm” of intense social pressure, addiction, body image issues, eating disorders, anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts in young girls. Instead of immediately searching for solutions, Facebook chose to keep quiet and rake in more advertising cash. Snapchat’s auto-delete feature and inability to turn on parental controls make the platform nothing short of a predator’s dream. Still, they refused to make any substantive changes that would impact their bottom line.
We cannot let Big Tech off the hook for this. In the Senate, I introduced the bipartisan Kids Online Safety Act to require platforms to give parents more safety controls, provide kids with greater ownership over their data, and stop the promotion of harmful content. But while legislation is needed to reform the toxic environment created by virtual platforms, Tennessee moms and dads already know that the best way to keep their kids safe is by getting involved at home. Last week, I released a one page guide to jump start kitchen table conversations that will give our children the tools to engage safely.
Summer break is just a few weeks away, which means the risks to kids are ramping up. I am working alongside parents, industry professionals, and my colleagues in the Senate to stop Silicon Valley from exploiting childhood curiosity. Together, we’ll make the internet a safer place for the next generation.
Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) serves the people of Tennessee. You can follow her on Twitter: @MarshaBlackburn