Loss, pain, harm: Grieving parents set the tone at this week’s tech CEOs hearing. It could change things

New York

Wednesday’s online youth safety hearing with some of the world’s leading social media CEOs was unlike the many that came before it in recent years. But it wasn’t because of anything the executives said.

Instead, it was the families sitting behind them — many holding photos of children who had been harmed or died after engaging online — who set the tone for a hearing that was, after years of talk, focused on finally taking action to protect young social media users. The presence of parents in the hearing room served as a stark reminder of the reason for the event and prompted rare apologies from Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Snap CEO Evan Spiegel.

During the hearing, Zuckerberg and Spiegel, along with the CEOs of TikTok, Discord and X, also faced calls to meet with the families affected by their platforms. And Wednesday night, after the event, some parents said the apologies did not go far enough.

“I feel it was very fake, it lacked any heart behind it,” Bridget Norring, a mother in the room whose son died from an accidental fentanyl overdose after ordering a pill off of Snapchat in 2020, told CNN of Spiegel’s apology. “I just feel like for them, our children are just casualties, pawns, in this game to make money.”

By Friday, only X and Discord indicated plans to meet with families or parent advocacy groups in the wake of the hearing, although the promises were light on details.

“Yes, we will be actively engaging with all Senators and will absolutely work to determine connection with families,” X business operations head Joe Benarroch said in an email. X CEO Linda Yaccarino thanked the “parents, families, and young people” who attended the hearing in a post on the platform. She also pledged to support several proposed bills mentioned at the hearing.

“No family should experience the pain of having a loved one fall victim to sexual exploitation online,” Clint Smith, Discord’s legal, policy and safety chief, said in an emailed statement to CNN. “We recognize our solemn and urgent responsibility to keep our users safe, especially young people. This is central to everything we do at Discord. We will continue our work with industry partners, experts, parents and law enforcement, as well as Congress and the Administration on this shared priority.”

Snap’s Spiegel has previously met with parents whose children died of accidental fentanyl overdoses after purchasing drugs on the platform, according to the company. Snap also partners with the advocacy group Song for Charlie, a family-run nonprofit, to promote education for teens about the dangers of fentanyl and fake pills that can be laced with the deadly drug.

In response to questions about whether Meta or Zuckerberg planned to meet with families, the company directed CNN to a blog post it published after the hearing that detailed its existing youth safety measures and parental oversight tools. TikTok did not respond to a request for comment.

Whether or not the companies ultimately agree to engage with them, these parents are likely to be a driving force in the ongoing effort to make social media platforms safer for children and teens.

“Nothing can match the eloquence and power of those profoundly human statements about loss and pain and grief and harm,” Connecticut Democrat Sen. Richard Blumenthal said, addressing parents, in a press conference following Wednesday’s hearing. “We will win this battle because of you.”

Minnesota Democrat Sen. Amy Klobuchar told CNN Wednesday evening that she felt “much more hopeful than I have for years on this, because those families [were] standing tall behind those CEOs.”

Within 24 hours of the hearing’s end, parents were already urging senators to hold a vote on at least one of the many proposed bills that they’d tried to convince the tech CEOs to get on board with during the hearing.

“We’re all relying on [New York Democrat Sen.] Chuck Schumer to bring the Kids Online Safety Act to the floor, and all of the yelling and screaming … won’t do anything unless Mr. Schumer moves that legislation,” Sam Chapman, a parent advocate whose son died after an accidental fentanyl overdose from a pill he bought on Snapchat, told CNN Thursday. “Talk is cheap and actions speak louder than words, and it’s time for action from the social media companies and our legislators.”

The Kids Online Safety Act is a hot-button bill that would force tech companies to take steps to design and operate their platforms in a way that would mitigate certain potential harms to young users.

On Thursday, Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley said he plans to try to force a vote next week on a bill aimed at protecting children from sexual exploitation online. The bill, known as the STOP CSAM Act, is co-sponsored by the panel’s Democratic Chairman Dick Durbin.

Hawley told reporters that he would attempt to pass the bill by unanimous consent sometime next week — meaning any single senator can block its passage.

“We just saw yesterday the extent of the damage that this has done, these platforms have done,” he said. “We saw yesterday Mark Zuckerberg apologize to these families, finally, and apologies are nice. But it’s time for Congress to act now, and it’s time to give these families the ability to hold these platforms accountable… I think yesterday can be a turning point, if we’re willing to make it a turning point, and the time to act is now.”

–CNN’s Brian Fung and Morgan Rimmer contributed to this report.

By 111 Tech

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