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These Grieving Parents Want Congress to Protect Children Online

These Grieving Parents Want Congress to Protect Children Online

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Deb Schmill has become a fixture on Capitol Hill. Last week alone, she visited the offices of 13 lawmakers, one of more than a dozen trips she has made from her home near Boston over the past two years.

In each meeting, Ms. Schmill talks about her daughter Becca, who died in 2020 at age 18. Ms. Schmill said Becca had died after taking fentanyl-laced drugs bought on Facebook. Before that, she said, her daughter was raped by a boy she had met online, then was cyberbullied on Snapchat.

“I have to do what I can to help pass legislation to protect other children and to prevent what happened to Becca from happening to them,” Ms. Schmill, 60, said. “It’s my coping mechanism.”

Ms. Schmill is among dozens of parents who are lobbying for the Kids Online Safety Act, or KOSA, a bill that would require social media, gaming and messaging apps to limit features that could heighten depression or bullying or lead to sexual exploitation. The bill, which has the greatest momentum of any broad tech industry legislation in years, would also require the tech services to turn on the highest privacy and safety settings by default for users under 17 and let youths opt out of some features that can lead to compulsive use.

Modeling themselves in part on Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which pushed for the 1984 federal law mandating a minimum drinking age of 21, about 20 of the parents have formed a group called ParentsSOS. Like members of MADD, the parents carry photos of their children who they say lost their lives because of social media, and explain their personal tragedies to legislators.

Dozens more parents have created organizations to fight social media addiction, eating disorders and fentanyl poisoning. All are pushing KOSA, swarming Capitol Hill to share how they say their children were harmed.

The bill, introduced in 2022, has bipartisan support in the Senate and is poised for a vote. It recently passed a key House subcommittee vote. President Biden has also supported the bill.

Dr. Vivek Murthy, the U.S. surgeon general, said this week that social media had contributed to an “emergency” mental health crisis among youths, adding more momentum.

But KOSA still faces steep obstacles. Tech lobbyists and the American Civil Liberties Union are fighting it, saying it could undermine free speech. Others worry that limiting children’s access to social media may further isolate vulnerable youths, including those in the L.G.B.T.Q. community.

To amp up the pressure as Congress’s August summer break approaches, ParentsSOS launched a Father’s Day ad campaign in Times Square, in New York, and a commercial campaign on streaming TV. (Fairplay, a child advocacy nonprofit, and the Eating Disorders Coalition provided funding.)

“I’ve had friends say, ‘Just let go and move on because it’s so painful,’ but I could not be quiet about what I’ve learned, which is that social media companies don’t have any accountability,” said Kristin Bride, 57, who lives in Oregon. Her son Carson died by suicide in 2020 at the age of 16 after what she said had been relentless bullying via an anonymous messaging app connected to Snapchat.

Snap, X and Microsoft have said they support KOSA.

“The safety of young people is an urgent priority, and we call on Congress to pass the Kids Online Safety Act,” Snapchat’s parent company, Snap, said in a statement. Snap no longer allows anonymous messaging apps to connect to its platform.

YouTube and Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, declined to comment. TikTok did not respond to a request for comment.

The parents’ push aligns with a global movement to regulate youth safety online. The European Union’s Digital Services Act of 2022 requires social media sites to block harmful content and restricts the use of features that can lead to addictive use by youths. Last year, Britain adopted a similar online safety law for children.

Domestically, 45 state attorneys general have sued Meta over allegations that it harms young users. Last year, 23 state legislatures adopted child safety laws, and this week New York adopted a law that restricts social media platforms from using recommendation feeds that could lead to compulsive consumption by users under 18.

Many of the parents turned lobbyists cited “The Social Dilemma,” a 2020 documentary about social media harms, as a call to action. They said they were also enraged by revelations in 2021 by the whistle-blower Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee who testified in Congress that the company knew the dangers for young people on its apps.

“For the first time, I understood that it was the design, it was the companies,” said Christine McComas, 59, who lives in Maryland. She said her daughter Grace died at 15 by suicide in 2012 after being bullied on Twitter.

Many of the parents said the Center for Humane Technology, a nonprofit that advocates social media regulations and was part of the documentary, had connected them after they reached out.

Maurine Molak’s son David died by suicide in 2016 at age 16 after what she said had been cyberbullying on Instagram and messaging apps. Another of her sons found an online memorial page for Grace McComas and encouraged his mother to get in touch with Ms. McComas via email.

The two mothers began having phone calls and connected with other parents, too. Ms. Molak had set up a foundation to educate the public about online bullying and to push for anti-bullying state legislation.

By early 2022, some of the parents had begun working with Fairplay to push for state child safety laws. That February, Senators Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, and Marsha Blackburn, Republican of Tennessee, introduced KOSA.

It had early but modest support, moving out of a Senate committee before stalling for months. Growing impatient, several parents showed up on Capitol Hill that November. Ms. Bride and other parents said they had entered the office of Senator Maria Cantwell, chair of the Commerce Committee and Democrat of Washington, and demanded a meeting. She met with them the next day.

Ms. Cantwell was visibly moved and rubbed the backs of several parents as they talked about their children, Ms. Bride said.

“Having to look at us and to know that our children are no longer with us hits them, and it has gotten people on board,” Ms. Bride said. Ms. Cantwell’s office declined to comment.

Ms. Cantwell became a vocal supporter of the bill, then tried to attach it to a year-end spending bill, which failed.

For much of last year, the bill sat, in part over concerns that the language requiring companies to design sites to protect children was too vague. Some legislators were also concerned that the bill would give attorneys general too much power to police certain content, a potential political weapon.

Discouraged, the parents called one another to stay motivated. In September, Ms. Schmill rented a short-term apartment a 10-minute walk from the Capitol. She changed in and out of sneakers carried in a canvas bag as she visited the offices of nearly all 100 senators to tell them about Becca.

“As I thought about facing another year of her birth date and death date, for me to cope with having to live through another anniversary, I had to feel like I had to be doing something productive in her memory,” Ms. Schmill said.

Late last year, around the time the Senate Judiciary Committee announced a January hearing on child safety with tech chief executives, the parents decided to form ParentsSOS. The initiative, intended to help them gain more support for KOSA, was funded by Fairplay and Ms. Molak’s foundation focused on cyberbullying.

The parents — communicating in emails and texts and over Zoom — decided to go to the child safety hearing to confront the executives from Discord, Meta, Snap, TikTok and X with photos of their children.

At the hearing, Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, tried to force Mark Zuckerberg, Meta’s chief executive, to apologize to the parents. Mr. Zuckerberg turned to the parents and said he was “sorry for everything you’ve all gone through.”

Todd Minor, a member of ParentsSOS who was in attendance, said the apology rang hollow. His 12-year-old son, Matthew, died in 2019 after taking part, Mr. Minor said, in a “blackout challenge” on TikTok, in which people choke themselves.

“We need KOSA. It’s that simple,” Mr. Minor, 48, said.

The parents then met with the Senate leader, Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, who promised to bring KOSA to a floor vote by June 20, according to Ms. Schmill and others in the meetings.

In April, the House introduced a companion bill.

Ms. Molak, 61, a San Antonio resident, met with Representative Randy Weber, Republican of Texas, last month to talk about her son David.

“Why am I not on this bill? Let’s get on this!” Mr. Weber, a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said to his staff during the meeting, according to Ms. Molak. Mr. Weber’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

But progress in that committee stalled this month. The Senate version of the bill still faces opposition.

Ms. Schmill and three of the other parents trekked back to the Capitol again last week.

“I need to keep busy, to keep trying,” Ms. Schmill said.


If you are having thoughts of suicide, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.



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