Parenting is one of the toughest jobs around. As a father to three daughters, I am constantly asking myself: Am I giving my girls enough space to be themselves? Are they safe from harm? Am I parenting enough, or too little? Now, add cellphones and social media to the mix, and it gets even harder.
As parents, we understand the need to strike a balance between our kids fitting in with their peers, focusing on their education and realizing their dreams. Unfortunately, recent news reports have exposed social media platforms — including Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat — for intentionally designing their products to get children addicted, manipulating them to stay glued to their devices, and even making it harder for them to report harassment online.
The result? Online abuse and addiction are leading to real-world harm.
As a former prosecutor and someone who experienced sexual abuse, I know firsthand that bad people are out there, and as a parent, you’ll do anything to keep your child safe and free from harm.
Unfortunately, far too many parents, including me, have been under the presumption that if children and teens are allowed on social media, that means it’s safe for them. We’ve been sorely mistaken.
Recently, Meta whistleblower Arturo Béjar testified before Congress about the horrifying risks of online engagement for children, including what he called a “critical gap” between how the company approaches harm and how people who use its products, specifically young users, experience it.
Béjar testified that Mark Zuckerberg and other Meta executives had been aware of the harm their platforms caused kids, but chose to ignore and bury the evidence instead of making Facebook and Instagram safer. Rather than act in response to insider information that their platforms harmed kids, Meta hid the information from both the public and Congressional oversight, he said.
According to the testimony, Meta buried the number of sexual advances toward children on the platforms. Of course, there’s also the hate speech, bullying and harassment that has contributed to the children’s mental health crisis in our country. And to top it off, the platforms’ algorithms are designed to take young users down “rabbit holes,” meaning children can become addicted to the platforms and endlessly scroll for hours a day — maximizing ad revenue and data capture for Meta.
Béjar’s testimony was corroborated by newly unsealed documents in a historic bipartisan lawsuit against Meta filed by more than 40 state attorneys general, including those in Maryland and the District of Columbia. The lawsuit claims Zuckerberg knew about most, if not all, the risks and allegedly shut down attempts to address the issue. He is also accused of rejecting a proposal from his team to remove certain beauty filters that encourage the use of plastic surgery. As a father, I was shocked by how low a company like Meta has stooped.
I believe we need to overcome our outrage and truly meet this moment with the action it deserves. That’s why I’m proud to join my colleagues Del. Jared Solomon and Sen. Ben Kramer in reintroducing the Maryland Kids Code during the upcoming session.
The Kids Code would put the onus on social media platforms to institute the strongest privacy-by-default and safety-by-design protections available and ensure products are age-appropriate and in kids’ best interests.
We have the power to bring these companies to the table and force them to do better. Companies such as Meta and TikTok will not voluntarily regulate themselves, but we can force them to put our kids first. Join me in urging my colleagues to support and pass the Maryland Kids Code.
C.T. Wilson represents District 28 in the Maryland House of Delegates.