Republican Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash.
Bill Clark | CQ-Roll Call Group | Getty Images
The letters, led by House Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., come one day before executives from each company are set to testify before the Senate Commerce subcommittee on consumer protection. Reps. Robert Latta, R-Ohio, Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., and Morgan Griffith, R-Va., also signed the letters.
They follow a series of reports based on leaked documents from Facebook that showed the company’s own research found negative impacts on the mental health of its young users, even while Facebook represented the more positive effects of its platform to the public.
The questions in Monday’s letters show lawmakers’ interest in protecting kids online is not limited to Facebook. Members of Congress are now eager to understand what a whole host of platforms know about their products’ impact on kids and teens. Lawmakers are weighing a range of new policies that could limit platform use to older teens and mandate companies install additional protections for young users.
The letters to Snap, TikTok and YouTube ask for research each company has conducted on the impact of their platforms on the mental health of users of various age groups, such as those under 13, 13-18 years of age, and 18 and older. They also ask for internal communications about those impacts and for information about outside research that was contracted.
The lawmakers also asked TikTok, whose parent company, ByteDance, is based in China, if it had ever been directed by the Chinese government to censor content on its platform or if it preemptively took down content for fear of “objections” from the government. They also asked if Chinese officials had sought U.S. user data and whether TikTok complied with such requests, if so.
TikTok has previously maintained that its U.S. user data is out of reach of the Chinese government because its servers with that information are not based in China.
Teen mental health online emerged as a key area of focus for many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle even before the leaked documents became public. But their concerns were exacerbated by reports from The Wall Street Journal that seem to show Facebook knew much more about how its products affected teens, despite painting a relatively rosy picture to Congress.
While severe negative mental health effects, such as self-reported thoughts of suicide, traced to Facebook’s platforms, occurred in a fraction of users, Facebook’s vast scale means that even small percentages of users can amount to significant numbers.
More reports on Facebook’s internal research have continued to trickle out since Friday, when a consortium of news organizations began publishing stories based on documents provided by former Facebook employee Frances Haugen. Haugen has also shared the documents with Congress and the Securities and Exchange Commission, seeking whistleblower status. Portions of the documents were first reported by the Journal.