Bipartisan Bill To Protect Kids From Social Media Harms Stalled In Senate

WASHINGTON — A bill aimed at forcing tech companies to protect children from the dangers of social media has stalled in the U.S. Senate despite overwhelming bipartisan support.

Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Thursday that he’s trying to get the entire chamber on board with the legislation so it can pass without the time-consuming process of beating a filibuster.

“After weeks of work, we have made real progress in removing objections to this bill,” Schumer said on the Senate floor. “Sadly, objectors remain.”

With nearly 70 cosponsors, the legislation has more than enough support to pass on a roll-call vote. But procedural votes can take several days, meaning Democrats would lose time for other priorities, such as confirming federal judges. Senators have only a handful of weeks left on their work calendar before the November elections.

The Kids Online Safety Act is a complex bill that, among other things, would create a “duty of care” rule for social media companies to shield minors from potentially harmful material, such as videos encouraging eating disorders, and it would require platforms to allow minors to opt out of algorithms that serve up addictive content.

A group called Parents for Safe Online Spaces, consisting of parents who’ve lost children because of online harms — such as the viral “blackout challenge” on TikTok — sent Schumer a letter earlier this week saying that he’d pledged to hold a vote on the bill by Thursday. The vote didn’t happen.

“We are disappointed that the deadline has been missed because families can’t wait any longer for a safer internet,” the group said in a statement to HuffPost after the Senate adjourned Thursday. “But we appreciate Leader Schumer’s comments on the floor today reiterating his commitment to move the bill one way or another.”

The legislation has its critics, including not only the tech industry but also the American Civil Liberties Union and LGBTQ+ groups that’ve warned it would empower state attorneys general to clamp down on transgender content online.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) told HuffPost that he is among the lawmakers who have opposed the bill. He voiced a number of objections, including to a provision setting up a “Kids Online Safety Council” tasked with identifying harms for minors, and to the bill’s definition of “mental health disorder,” which he said was too broad and could shift over time.

“They’ve already got moms who’ve had tragedies with their kids coming up to me, but someone has to have the guts to read the bill, see what’s wrong with it,” Paul said. “If they want it unanimously, they have to negotiate.”

The U.S. surgeon general this week said that social media apps are so harmful to children that they ought to come with warning labels, like the ones on packs of cigarettes. Democrats and Republicans in Congress have made similar statements, and some lawmakers have said that young people should be restricted from using social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram unless their parents approve. Earlier this year, Congress even passed a bill that would ban TikTok outright if its Chinese parent company refuses to divest.

But the TikTok ban was more about national security than mental health, and the Kids Online Safety Act seems stuck on the back burner.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), the bill’s lead sponsor alongside Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), praised Schumer for his work so far on the legislation and predicted it would eventually pass.

“The leader has been working tirelessly to get this bill done. I have seen the work up close and I have seen the benefits,” Blumenthal said Thursday, speaking with Schumer on the Senate floor. “After pushing and cajoling, we are much closer to ultimate success.”