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Capitol Hill lawmakers tell tech CEOs that they have failed to protect children

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DICK DURBIN: This meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee will come to order.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

That's Senator Dick Durbin opening a contentious hearing yesterday on a subject he said was top of mind for many, if not most, American families.

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DURBIN: How to keep our kids safe from sexual exploitation and harm in the internet age.

MARTIN: A bipartisan panel of senators that included Lindsey Graham, Marsha Blackburn, Sheldon Whitehouse and Josh Hawley lashed out at five top social media executives, including the founder of Facebook.

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LINDSEY GRAHAM: Mr. Zuckerberg, you and the companies before us, I know you don't mean it to be so, but you have blood on your hands.

MARSHA BLACKBURN: It appears that you're trying to be the premier sex trafficking site in this country.

MARK ZUCKERBERG: Of course not, senator. Senator, that's ridiculous.

BLACKBURN: No, it is not.

SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: Your platforms really suck at policing themselves.

JOSH HAWLEY: Would you like now to apologize to the victims who have been harmed by your product? Show them the pictures.

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HAWLEY: Would you like to apologize for what you've done to these good people?

MARTIN: Mark Zuckerberg did apologize, turning his back on the senators to tell families in the hearing room he is sorry for the harm that they have suffered. He also said his firm is building guardrails to keep kids safe online. But how dangerous is social media for kids? We called Dr. Megan Moreno to talk about this because she teaches medicine at the University of Wisconsin and she's a co-medical director of a center at the American Academy of Pediatrics dedicated to social media and youth mental health. And she was at the White House yesterday to talk about kids' online safety and health. Dr. Moreno, welcome. Thank you for joining us today.

MEGAN MORENO: Thank you.

MARTIN: So look, we understand that hearings are, you know, in part fact-finding but in part theater, so there's a level of exaggeration that we've come to expect. But having said all that, what was your sense of the hearing? I mean, did it sort of accurately capture sort of the picture, or was there exaggeration there?

MORENO: I think it's a little bit complicated because the risk - for some kids, the risk was not exaggerated. There are kids that have been harmed. And that is important to recognize. But it also shouldn't be taken that all kids are harmed, that there's a universal risk that can be applied to every kid. And for some kids, social media is a lifeline and a huge benefit against other risks in their offline life.

MARTIN: What about this idea of age limits, like, a hard age limit, setting a limit on how old or young someone can be before they can surf, you know, use the internet without supervision? Is that kind of the right direction to take?

MORENO: I think that if we pin our hopes on the idea that an age limit is going to solve so many of the areas that we're worried about with the internet, I worry that that's a little bit too much of a blunt instrument. And I also worry because some kids, they're really not ready for social media at 13 or 16, and right now they feel pretty comfortable waiting. But when you really set an age limit, it becomes sort of a goal-driven thing, kind of like driving or turning 21 and having your first drink. And it could actually drive more kids to engage at ages when maybe they're not ready.

MARTIN: I understand what you're saying, especially that analogy toward driving. Some kids are ready to drive at 16 and some may be not. So what - how would you recommend that parents figure out - I mean, obviously this is a complicated topic. But as briefly as you can, what should parents look for in trying to figure out how and when to set those boundaries?

MORENO: I think a really big part of the conversation for parents is recognizing that for teens, we know that over 90% of teens use the internet, use social media. But for adults, over 75% use social media. And so I think a good starting place for parents is to take a deep breath and without blame, without shame, take a look at their own social media use and think about what they're role-modeling at home and whether they're present for their teen and able to have those conversations about, you know, what are you doing on social media? What are you getting out of it? What are you worried about? And really being able to open up those channels of communication.

MARTIN: And are there specific danger signs that a kid is in trouble and that what they're seeing online may be a big factor?

MORENO: I think with teens, a lot of the danger signs are pretty similar across teens - withdrawing from their friends, not doing things that they used to really enjoy, you know, not engaging in activities they used to really enjoy. But I think the trick for parents is not to jump to a conclusion about what the cause of that might be and really being able to sit with your teen and listen to what they're worried about.

MARTIN: That is Dr. Megan Moreno. She's with the American Academy of Pediatrics Center for Excellence on Social Media and Youth Mental Health. Dr. Moreno, thank you so much for joining us and sharing this expertise with us.

MORENO: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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