Senators Turn Child-Safety Spotlight on TikTok, Snapchat and YouTube

WASHINGTON—A Senate panel broadened its inquiry into social media’s impact on children and teenagers, questioning representatives of TikTok, Snapchat and YouTube as lawmakers build a case for new legislation to protect young people online.

The Senate Commerce Committee panel focused much of its attention Tuesday on TikTok, the popular Chinese-owned short-video app, and whether its algorithms steer young users to harmful content.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.), cited Wall Street Journal reporting that she said showed “TikTok’s algorithm can push young users into content glorifying eating disorders, drugs, violence.”

“Have you stopped that?” Ms. Klobuchar asked Michael Beckerman, a vice president and head of public policy in the Americas for TikTok, which is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance Ltd.

Mr. Beckerman said the Journal article didn’t show “an authentic experience that an actual user would have,” adding that the company has “made a number of improvements to the way that people have control of the algorithm and have age-appropriate content on TikTok.”

Sen. John Thune (R., S.D.) said the Journal’s reporting helped make the case for a bipartisan bill that would, among other things, require social-media platforms to give users an alternative to opaque algorithms that curate the content they see.

“Congress needs to be heard from in this space, particularly with respect to the use of algorithms and the way that users are manipulated,” he said.

A Wall Street Journal investigation found that TikTok only needs one important piece of information to figure out what you want: the amount of time you linger over a piece of content. Every second you hesitate or rewatch, the app is tracking you. Photo illustration: Laura Kammermann/The Wall Street Journal

Any new bill faces long odds in a divided Congress. Tuesday’s hearing, which lasted more than three hours, was the latest in which lawmakers agreed on the need to address concerns about large technology and social-media companies.

But like the other hearings, it also put on display the lack of consensus about what specific laws to pass.

In addition to Mr. Thune’s proposal, lawmakers raised various other ideas Tuesday, including changing antitrust laws, narrowing legal protections that social-media companies enjoy for hosting user-generated content, and expanding existing legal restrictions on the online collection of data about children.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R., Tenn.) said she often hears about youngsters ‘who are suffering after interacting with TikTok, YouTube and Snapchat.’

Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

Tuesday’s hearing followed two previous hearings of the committee triggered by the Journal’s reporting on internal Facebook Inc. FB -3.92% documents showing that the company’s products, including its Instagram app, cause an array of harms, from fostering social discord to creating negative body images for teen girls.

Members of both parties said they believe other social-media platforms cause similar problems.

“You, too, drive and strive to find something that kids will like and drive more of it to them. If you learn that a teen feels insecure with their body, it’s a recipe for disaster,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.), chair of the commerce panel’s subcommittee on consumer protection, which held Tuesday’s hearing.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R., Tenn.), the top Republican on the panel, said almost daily she hears “stories about kids and teens who are suffering after interacting with TikTok, YouTube and Snapchat.”

Company representatives touted their efforts to make platforms safer, including keeping children away from potentially harmful content and design features that they said discourage prompting teenagers to compare themselves against peers.


What steps, if any, should the Senate subcommittee take to protect young people on TikTok, Snapchat and YouTube? Join the conversation below.

TikTok “is not a social network based on followers or a social graph,” Mr. Beckerman said. “It’s not an app that people check to see what their friends are doing.”

He said TikTok doesn’t allow users under age 16 to host live streams or send direct messages, actions he said run “counter to industry norms or our own short-term growth interests, because we are committed to do what’s right.”

Jennifer Stout, vice president of global public policy for Snap Inc., said her company’s Snapchat app “was built as an antidote to social media,” pointing to features of the app, such as messages that delete by default and a lack of an “endless feed of unvetted content” for users to view.

Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah) told Ms. Stout his staff had created a Snapchat account for a 15-year-old user and been served content involving sexualized videogames or porn stars “most politely described as wildly inappropriate to a child.”

Ms. Stout said the app’s “discover” feature is closely moderated and “if it violates our guidelines, that kind of content would go down.”

Both TikTok and Snap were testifying before Congress for the first time.

YouTube executive Leslie Miller said the company restricts targeted advertising on content intended for children.

Photo: U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation

Leslie Miller, vice president of public policy at YouTube, touted the platform’s efforts to remove videos that violate child-safety policies before they go viral.

She said the company has restricted targeted advertising on content made for children—an action it took after a $170 million penalty in 2019 for allegedly violating online privacy rules regarding children. YouTube didn’t admit wrongdoing in the case.

“It is crucial to put in place protections that allow [young people] age-appropriate access to information. We do this by investing in the partnerships, technologies and policies that create safer environments,” Ms. Miller told the Senate panel.

Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D., N.M.), asked Ms. Miller whether YouTube would disclose the view rates of content that violates its policies in Spanish and other languages, as opposed to disclosing aggregate data. Ms. Miller declined to do so.

Several Republican senators questioned TikTok over concerns that the company could be sharing data with the Chinese government.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) accused Mr. Beckerman of refusing to definitively answer whether other parts of ByteDance could get access to data that TikTok collects. Mr. Beckerman repeated the company’s longtime assertion that it doesn’t share consumer data with Beijing.

The Trump administration sought to ban TikTok over those security concerns, an effort that was unwound by the Biden administration, which instead launched a review of all software applications with potential ties to countries such as China.

Senators sought, largely unsuccessfully, to pin down the companies’ support of specific legislative proposals. The witnesses offered their broad support for the legislators’ goals but often avoided endorsing specific bills.

“Congress’s role in pushing forward regulation in this space is absolutely necessary,” Ms. Stout said.

Write to Ryan Tracy at

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