Amid growing backlash against social media platforms, including legislation targeting Chinese-owned TikTok and other apps, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said in a Feb. 7 interview with NBC News that he plans to sponsor legislation that will set a minimum age of 16 for users of social media and that he also plans to commission a study on the impact of social media on young users’ well-being.
Hawley made his announcement right before President Biden’s State of the Union address, and just days after some of the harshest public criticism directed at TikTok, as Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, urged the Biden administration to take more aggressive action to monitor TikTok’s gathering of data and the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) influence over content shared on the platform.
The announcement also comes just weeks after a court decision in the United Kingdom that directly blamed Meta (formerly Facebook) for the suicide of a 14-year-old girl, Molly Russell. The coroner in the case called Russell’s death an act of self-harm resulting directly from “depression and the negative effects of online content,” and the court’s ruling stated that social media “affected her mental health in a negative way and contributed to her death in a more than minimal way.”
Hawley presented his proposed legislation as necessary to protect users of an impressionable age from the extremely harmful peer pressure, harassment, body shaming, invasions of privacy, and other ills for which social media have been widely criticized.
“For me, this is about protecting kids, protecting their mental health, protecting their safety. There’s ample evidence to this effect that big tech companies put their profits ahead of protecting kids online,” Hawley told NBC News.
Known for his political and social conservatism, Hawley described his effort as a bipartisan one growing out of long-running discussions with Democrat lawmakers.
“I’ve had a lot of conversations with Democrats across the aisle and over the years about this topic generally and about different pieces of this. I don’t see this as a partisan issue. I mean, this is about protecting kids from the irresponsible and rapacious big tech companies,” he said.
Hawley is a longstanding critic of big tech and social media, but his proposal is not the plan of a lone cynic.
Hawley’s announcement comes at a juncture where the tech sector has been rocked by layoffs of tens of thousands of employees, and the announced termination of thousands more. In November 2022, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg dismissed 11,000 employees, or 13 percent of its total number, in a move without precedent in the country’s history, and mass firings have also taken place or been announced at PayPal, Microsoft, and Amazon in recent months.
Some observers have blamed the layoffs on a cultural shift in which growing numbers of people have come to recognize the harm that immersion in social media can inflict on users’ well-being or have simply grown tired of using social media constantly as the novelty wears off and the platforms consume disproportionate amounts of their time.
The Epoch Times has reached out to Meta for comment.