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Keeping kids safe online

Recently, the U.S. Surgeon General released a report warning about the negative impacts of social media on children’s mental health, saying that it presents a profound risk of harm. The advisory also urged social media companies to help parents with the burden of managing the effects of social media on kids.

It’s true, social media has made it a really hard time to be a parent. In fact, a mom once told me that trying to keep her kids safe on social media felt like trying to mop up the water from an overflowing sink. Every time she’d get them off one site, she discovered they had found a workaround or discovered a new one.

Big tech companies have shown time and time again that they cannot be trusted to protect kids’ data or safety online. We’ve spent years talking about these problems, but it’s time to actually do something about them.

First, tech platforms need to cut down on the addictive and otherwise dangerous content they are showing kids. There is growing evidence that kids are literally getting addicted to apps like Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok.

According to a recent report, around one-third of girls ages 11-15 say they feel “addicted” to a social media platform and over half of teenagers report that it would be hard to give up social media. Big tech companies don’t see this as a problem — in fact, they see it as a success — but parents know that the combination of social media addiction and dangerous online content has been disastrous for everything from kids purchasing deadly drugs laced with fentanyl to constant distractions from homework.

Facebook’s own research showed that 13 percent of teen girls reported that Instagram worsened suicidal thoughts, and there have been too many examples of content that encourages eating disorders among teen users on TikTok. I am working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to pass a bipartisan bill that makes it clear that big tech companies need to do more to protect kids on their platforms and give parents the tools to keep their kids safe.

Additionally, we need to make sure big tech companies can’t collect data about children without their parents getting a say. Using social media generates all sorts of information about who a person is, where they are, and what they like. That data can be used by platforms to create addictive content or target kids with ads. That’s why I’m working to pass legislation to require these platforms to get explicit consent from users aged 16 and under, as well as their parents, before collecting data.

It’s also critical that we address the impact of social media on drug addiction and trafficking. I will never forget the story of Minnesota teenager Devin Norring. Devin was struggling with dental pain and debilitating migraines, so he bought what he believed was Percocet over Snapchat to deal with the pain. But it wasn’t really Percocet. What that dealer gave him was laced with fentanyl, and it killed him.

Devin’s story is sadly too common. That is why I have long pushed to strengthen efforts to detect and intercept fentanyl at our borders. I am also leading and cosponsoring several bipartisan bills to stop fentanyl trafficking online, including legislation to bolster federal law enforcement’s ability to investigate online fentanyl trafficking, including on the dark web, so we can crack down on these crimes. Social media has been a gateway to drugs for too many kids, and it’s past time we meet this threat with the all-hands-on-deck response it requires.

Parents deserve the peace of mind that comes with knowing that their kids are safe online. That means being protected from big tech companies profiting off of their personal data, dangerous content that harms their mental health, and drug traffickers moving deadly substances. I am going to continue working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to pass meaningful reforms that address social media’s harms to children head-on.

— U.S. Sen Amy Klobuchar represents Minnesota in the U.S. Senate

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