Q&A: Protecting kids online

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa)

Q: What can be done to address the mental health crisis among America’s youth?

A: Even before the pandemic led to school closures and months of isolation away from their classmates, warning signs flagged a mental health crisis among America’s adolescents. Study after study shows that mental health issues among children and teens are on the rise. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the rates of sadness and hopelessness among youth are the highest reported in a decade. Nearly three in five girls felt persistent sadness in 2021; one in three girls seriously considered suicide. Medical experts point to the rise in screen time and social media use as a predominant factor harming adolescents’ mental health. The U.S. Surgeon General recently issued a public health advisory, warning that a surge in loneliness is harming individual and societal health, associated with greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety and premature death. This is a wake-up call for America. Parents, educators, health care professionals and policymakers need to respond with urgency before it’s too late. Ignoring the situation or denying a crisis exists among America’s youth undermines their futures and puts society at risk for generations to come.

Earlier this year, I wrote the leaders of school board associations to ask for their input on how local school districts and state-level education professionals can lead efforts to help students and parents combat the dangers associated with digital technologies and screen time, including drug trafficking, cyberbullying and mental health issues, such as eating disorders, anxiety, depression and suicidal behaviors. It is ironic social media initially was viewed as a digital gateway to build connections among people in our communities and around the world. Decades later, society is grappling with the reality that social media helped pave the way to social isolation and partisan divide in the 21st century. As Iowa’s senior U.S. Senator, I was one of the earliest adopters of social media to facilitate dialogue with my constituents. However, it should not displace face-to-face contact. One way I connect in person is my annual 99 county meetings where I hold Q&A’s with Iowans across the state. Nothing can replace a handshake and connecting with people eyeball to eyeball to help forge civic engagement and social cohesion. Keeping in touch with Iowans is how I work to strengthen representative government. The same goes with fostering healthy relationships with family members, co-workers, neighbors and classmates. Prioritizing in-person conversations in the workplace, around the kitchen table and learning together in the classroom will help build healthier, happier, stronger communities.

Q: How are you working to hold Big Tech accountable and bring social media giants to the table?

A: America’s youngest generations are digital natives who have fallen prey to a Wild West digital landscape. In the previous Congress, a native Iowan testified before lawmakers about algorithms that prioritized profits over the well-being of users and society at large. Too often, parents feel ill-equipped to take on Big Tech and the social media platforms that have toxic influence in their teens’ daily lives. I’ve teamed up on a bipartisan bill called the Kids Online Safety Act that empowers parents and gives them tools to have more control over their children’s screen time and the content in their feeds. It’s high time for Big Tech companies to take accountability for what’s pushed on their platforms to help prevent the promotion of dangerous and harmful content, such as eating disorders, cyberbullying, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts and sexual exploitation. With one-third of the Senate co-sponsoring this bipartisan bill, we’ve got momentum to get it across the finish line. Policymakers, parents and social media platforms must partner together to put the well-being of America’s next generation first.

I’m also working to curb online child exploitation and shut down drug traffickers, sex predators and criminals who use digital technology to get their hands on innocent children. In May the Senate Judiciary Committee delivered a strong show of bipartisanship with passage of the EARN IT Act. It amends Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to remove blanket immunity from civil and criminal liability to hold technology companies accountable for violation of laws related to sexual abuse and exploitation of children on their platforms. In addition, I’m co-sponsoring bipartisan legislation called the Project Safe Childhood Act that would improve collaboration among federal, state and local law enforcement to step up investigations and prosecutions of child sexual exploitation and improve measures to rescue these young victims. I’ve teamed up on another bipartisan bill named after a 16-year old who lost his life after taking a pill believed to have been purchased online. It would require social media companies to step up and help fight sales of illicit fentanyl on their platforms. Too many Moms and Dads in America are losing their kids to pills that kill.