These grieving parents want Congress to protect children online

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 in the past two years.

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

“I need to do what I can to help pass legislation to protect other children and to prevent what happened to Becca from happening to them,” said Ms. Schmill, 60. “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, games and messaging apps to limit features that could increase depression or bullying or lead to sexual exploitation. The bill, which has had the most momentum of any tech industry legislation in years, would also require technology services to turn on the highest privacy and security settings by default for users under 17 and allow young people to turn off some features which can lead to compulsive use.

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

Dozens of other parents have created organizations to fight social media addiction, eating disorders and fentanyl poisoning. Everyone is pushing for KOSA, swarming to Capitol Hill to share how they say their children have been harmed.

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

Dr. Vivek Murthy, the US surgeon general, said this week that social media had contributed to an “emergency” mental health crisis among young people, adding further momentum.

But KOSA still faces steep hurdles. Tech lobbyists and the American Civil Liberties Union are pushing back against this, arguing it could undermine free speech. Others worry that limiting children's access to social media could further isolate vulnerable youth, including those in the LGBTQ community.

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

“I had friends who told me, 'Let it go and move on because it's so painful,' but I couldn't stay quiet about what I learned, which is that social media companies have no responsibility,” said Kristin Sposa, 57 years old, living in Oregon. Her son Carson died by suicide in 2020 at age 16 after what she said was relentless bullying via an anonymous messaging app linked to Snapchat.

Snap, X and Microsoft have said they support KOSA.

“The safety of young people is an urgent priority and we are calling 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 push from parents aligns with a global movement to regulate the safety of young people online. The European Union's Digital Services Act 2022 requires social media sites to block harmful content and limits the use of features that can lead to addictive use by young people. Last year, Britain adopted a similar law on children's online safety.

Nationwide, 45 state attorneys general have sued Meta on charges of harming young users. Last year, 23 state legislatures adopted child safety laws, and this week New York adopted a law barring social media platforms from using recommendation feeds that could lead to compulsive drinking by users under 18 years.

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

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

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

Maurine Molak's son David died by suicide in 2016 at age 16 after what she said was cyberbullying on Instagram and messaging apps. Another of her children found an online memorial page for Grace McComas and encouraged his mother to contact Mrs. McComas via email.

The two mothers began receiving phone calls and also making contact with other parents. Ms. Molak had created a foundation to educate the public about online bullying and to push for state anti-bullying legislation.

By early 2022, some 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, making it 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 walked into the office of Senator Maria Cantwell, chairwoman of the Commerce Committee and a Washington Democrat, and asked for a meeting. She met them the next day.

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

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

Ms. Cantwell became an outspoken supporter of the bill, then attempted to attach it to an end-of-year spending bill, but failed.

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

Discouraged, parents called each other to stay motivated. In September, Ms. Schmill rented an apartment for a short time a 10-minute walk from the Capitol. She changed into 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 from his birth and death dates, to be able to face another anniversary, I had to feel that I needed to do something productive in his memory,” Ms. Schmill said.

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

The parents, communicating by email, text and via Zoom, decided to go to the child safety hearing to confront executives at Discord, Meta, Snap, TikTok and X with photos of their children.

During the hearing, Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, tried to force Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta, to apologize to the parents. Mr Zuckerberg addressed the parents and said he was “sorry for everything you've been through”.

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

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

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 other meeting attendees.

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 aren't they on this bill? Go on! Mr. Weber, a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, told staff about him during the meeting, according to Ms. Molak. Mr. Weber's office did not respond to a request for comment.

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

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

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

If you are thinking about suicide, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or go to for a list of additional resources.

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