Bipartisan pair of lawmakers push to protect children online

Samuel Corum/Getty Images

(WASHINGTON) -- Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Marsha Blackburn introduced bipartisan legislation Tuesday focused on protecting children online and holding social media companies accountable as cries mount for improved safety features.

The legislation would mandate independent annual audits to assess risks to minors, require social media companies to have more options for minors to protect their information and disable certain features, provide more parental controls and give academic and public interest organizations access to datasets to foster research.

The Kids Online Safety Act of 2023 builds on the 117th Congress' version by delineating important definitions and guidelines to better concentrate on immediate hazards to children. The legislation focuses on specific dangers online, including the promotion of suicide, eating disorders, substance abuse and sexual exploitation.

Though the bill failed last year, Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, said he's noticed a "powerful change" recently, and after conversations with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, he said, "I fully hope and expect to have a vote this session."

"We cannot afford to allow more children to die or suffer as a result of this toxic content driven and children and driving them down dark rabbit holes," Blumenthal said during Tuesday's press call introducing the bill.

During the call, the senators brought on researchers, parents whose children have been affected by social media trends and young adults who told their own stories about the addictive and harmful features on social media apps.

"Right now, the burden of safety on social media and online platforms falls squarely on me on my peers, and on parents. And when, not if, we are faced with harmful content or interactions online, there are a few places to turn," said Zamaan Qureshi, youth advocate and co-chair of Design It For Us, self-described as a "coalition of young activists and organizations advocating for safer social media and online platforms for kids, teens and young adults."

Joann Bogard, who described losing her 13-year-old son Mason in 2019 after he participated in a viral social media challenge called the choking game, said well-intentioned parents are no match for social media companies when it comes to monitoring their children's content.

"I kept asking myself, 'What did I miss?'" she said. "I had safety features turned on his devices watchdog apps to alert me if he searched inappropriate content and connected phone regularly and we had candid conversations about online safety. But even the parents who do everything right can't protect them from these corporations who are deliberately designing these products to keep iPhone screens on."

Blumenthal and Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, have spearheaded the bipartisan push for more oversight of social media companies, blaming "Big Tech" for blocking attempts by Congress to regulate their platforms.

At a February hearing, the Senate Judiciary Committee heard from advocates also pushing for more social media safety features and victims of cyberbullying as they continued discussions about the various harms of social media and the lack of protection tools.

As ABC News previously reported, in addition to the 2023 Kids' Online Safety Act, the dozens of proposals to restrict Big Tech in Congress include a measure from Sens. Lindsey Graham and Elizabeth Warren that would create a new consumer protection agency to regulate the tech industry and a bill from Sens. Tom Cotton and Brian Schatz that bans social media for children under 13.

Blumenthal and Blackburn both rejected an age limit ban Tuesday, voicing concerns over the collection of personal information.

Tuesday, May 2, 2023 at 3:47PM by Lalee Ibssa, ABC News Permalink