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Youtube, Snapchat and TikTok officials testify to Senators on kids' online safety

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

On Capitol Hill today, senators accused social media apps of endangering teens by making it too easy for them to buy illegal drugs or be bullied or encouraging them to hurt themselves by what they see online. Here's Democrat Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.

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RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: More eyeballs means more dollars. Everything that you do is to add users, especially kids, and keep them on your apps for longer.

CHANG: Senator Blumenthal was addressing officials from YouTube, TikTok and Snapchat, all apps that are popular with teenagers. To talk more about the testimony today, we're joined now by NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond.

Hi, Shannon.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: All right, so tell us more about some of the specific examples that senators brought up about how these apps directly harm kids or teens.

BOND: Yeah. So Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar talked about talking to the mother of a teen boy who died after buying painkillers from someone on Snapchat that turned out to contain fentanyl. And, you know, Snapchat responded that, you know, this is just devastating. It's dedicated to removing all drug dealers from its platforms but also said this is not a problem unique to its app. When it came to TikTok - which probably a lot of people associate with, you know, dance videos, comedy sketches - Republicans Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Ted Cruz of Texas really zeroed in on national security fears. They grilled the TikTok representative about how much data it shares with China because TikTok's parent company, ByteDance, is based in Beijing. And...

CHANG: Right.

BOND: You know, TikTok says - it has long said that it stores U.S. user data outside of China.

CHANG: OK. Well, YouTube is bigger than either TikTok or Snapchat, and I'm curious. What questions did senators have for YouTube?

BOND: Yeah. There was a lot of focus on this idea of, you know, kids getting pulled down rabbit holes, you know, giving examples of - you know, you might look for a video about dieting tips and then be recommended extreme videos about eating disorders. YouTube says it prohibits videos that glorify or promote eating disorders, but senators came armed with lots of examples. And more broadly, lawmakers want to know how these companies' algorithms work, how they're used to get kids hooked on these apps where they risk being exposed to some really harmful content. And senators were left frustrated. You know, afterwards, Senator Blumenthal told reporters that he thought YouTube had ducked making specific commitments, though I will say all three companies did say they will share data and research. It's not really clear what that's going to look like.

CHANG: OK. Well, you have mentioned senators on both sides of the aisle citing their concerns. But are lawmakers offering up any actual solutions to this?

BOND: Well, there are a ton of bills in the House and the Senate right now seeking to rein in tech. And today several senators tried to pin down the companies on whether they support some of these measures. So here's Democrat Ed Markey of Massachusetts adding - asking Snapchat's Jennifer Stout what she thinks of his proposal to expand kids' privacy protections.

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ED MARKEY: So you've had a chance to look at the child online privacy protection update that I've introduced. It's been out there for years. Do you support it or not?

JENNIFER STOUT: I think, senator, we'd love to talk to you a bit more about some of the issues...

MARKEY: No, no. We've been talking - listen. This is just what drives us crazy. We want to talk. We want to talk. We want to talk. This bill's been out there for years, and you still don't have a view on it.

BOND: And you can hear the frustration as he's talking about overhauling...

CHANG: Yeah.

BOND: ...The law that was originally passed more than 20 years ago, before any of these companies even existed.

CHANG: Well, how did these companies defend themselves throughout the hearing today?

BOND: Well, look. There was a big elephant in the room today, which is, of course, Facebook. This is the same committee that heard from the Facebook whistleblower who leaked documents showing, among other things, the company has studied the harms of its Instagram app on teenagers' mental health. And so we heard all three companies today taking great pains to distance themselves from Facebook. Snapchat talked about being built differently, you know, not coming at you with a bunch of posts you might be interested in but rather opening up on a camera. YouTube talked about how it built an entirely separate app for kids under 13 that - you know, with no autoplaying videos. But Blumenthal didn't buy it.

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BLUMENTHAL: Being different from Facebook is not a defense. That bar is in the gutter. It's not a defense to say that you are different. What we want is not a race to the bottom but really a race to the top.

BOND: And that really reflects the tone here. You know, senators are skeptical these companies have young users' best interests at heart.

CHANG: OK, Shannon. So what should we be looking for next?

BOND: Well, Blumenthal wants Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to come testify about the whistleblower disclosures. But look, Ailsa. Overall, there's no sign that any of these companies are backing down from their focus on attracting young users. Their future depends on grabbing that generation. And Zuckerberg just yesterday said, you know, his company is refocusing on attracting users under 30.

CHANG: That is NPR's Shannon Bond.

Thank you, Shannon.

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