Democrats and Republicans in Congress are proposing three pieces of legislation aimed at giving parents greater oversight of what their children do online and making social media companies culpable for crimes associated with their apps.
Those efforts are backed by parents of children who died from taking drugs purchased via social media platforms like Snapchat.
The newest of the three, called Sammy’s Law or the Let Parents Choose Protection Act, is being drafted by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., and could be ready to be introduced in the House in a matter of weeks, said two people close to the effort who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss private conversations. The bill would require large social media companies to allow parents to track their kids online via third-party software.
In a statement provided to NBC News, Wasserman Schultz said she is working with Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and expects to announce a GOP co-sponsor for Sammy’s Law soon.
The draft legislation comes after years of activism from a community of parents whose children have died from fentanyl overdoses that followed drug deals facilitated on social media platforms like Snapchat, where drug dealers have found private venues to target young people. But those efforts have also been countered by some concerns from privacy advocates who worry that legislation could lead to overly intrusive surveillance.
The bill from Wasserman Schultz is named after Sammy Chapman, who died in 2021 at the age of 16 from fentanyl-laced drugs purchased from a drug dealer on Snapchat.
Since then, Sammy’s parents have been among the loudest voices calling for social media companies to make changes. His father, Samuel, and mother, Laura Berman, eventually went on to develop and advocate for Sammy’s Law with the Organization for Social Media Safety.
They quickly learned they weren’t the only parents dealing with the unfortunate consequences of drug crime intersecting with social media platforms that are oftentimes used by children.
A growing community of parents have lost their children in social media-related deaths. They’ve become some of the loudest voices pushing for legislation and regulation that would impact the operation of social media platforms.
Amy Neville, whose 14-year-old son, Alex, died in 2020 after taking drugs purchased from a dealer found on Snapchat, said that she first thought that parents could potentially work with the platform to help make it better.
Sammy’s Law would join two other bipartisan bills introduced in Congress earlier this year that are aimed at reducing social media’s impact on kids and holding social media companies responsible for crimes related to their platforms.
In the House, the Combating Harmful Actions with Transparency on Social (CHATS) Act was introduced last month by Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., and has bipartisan co-sponsors. The legislation would mandate the tracking and recording of crimes committed using social media.
“This new information will be a valuable tool in our fight against online crimes, including cracking down on drug dealers using social media to prey on our kids,” he said in an interview.
In the Senate, the Kids Online Safety Act, sponsored by Sens. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., would create a duty of care for social media companies that would theoretically allow them to be sued if it was found that they were not sufficiently preventing harm to minors on their platforms. The bipartisan bill was approved by the Senate Commerce Committee last month.
Marc Berkman, CEO of the Organization for Social Media Safety, a group that helped develop the CHATS Act and Sammy’s Law, said that he’s hopeful about the new interest among lawmakers in legislation pertaining to social media crime and protecting children.
“We’re seeing more and more cases where children have been severely harmed, but also potentially millions of cases with some level of harm among children,” he said. “So the public awareness has reached a certain point where we’re finally seeing legislative action again at all levels of government.”
The legislative push follows efforts to talk directly with Snapchat.
Neville said she and other parents met with company representatives in the spring of 2021. Rather than giving parents faith that Snapchat could address their concerns, the meetings disillusioned many, according to four parents who spoke to NBC News. Neville said that the company issued quiet condolences and excuses, but wouldn’t take responsibility for its role in any child’s death.
Drugs and social media
“To let Snapchat sit quietly knowing they have a problem is not acceptable to me. And unfortunately, I was part of that, so from there, I was like, forget it, I’m speaking out,” she said.
In a statement, a Snap Inc. spokesperson said employees at the company are “devastated for the families who have suffered unimaginable losses” and are “working tirelessly to help combat this national crisis by eradicating illicit drug dealers from our platform.” The spokesperson said the company uses ”advanced technology to proactively detect and shut down drug dealers who try to abuse our platform, and block search results for dangerous drug-related content.”
In June 2021, Neville, Chapman, Berman and other parents participated in protests around the country, including outside Snapchat’s Santa Monica office in California, asking the company to allow third-party parental monitoring software such as Bark access to Snapchat chats.
Bark, which has attracted criticism from some privacy advocates and lawmakers, monitors content on a child’s phone and alerts parents to potentially dangerous or inappropriate content, including conversations about drugs, but Snapchat, among some other applications, does not allow Bark or other similar apps to access its chat function for monitoring. That would change if Sammy’s Law was passed, which is designed to require large social media companies to open up to any parental monitoring software that registers with the Federal Trade Commission.
According to the parents who spoke with NBC News, Snap’s response to their requests have not been sufficient in addressing their concerns. The parents say that they’ve turned to political activism as social media companies have failed to meet their expectations.
Along with federal legislation, many parents have been involved in movements to create social media laws at the state levels.
Matt Capelouto, a California parent whose 20-year-old daughter died after taking drugs purchased from a dealer found on Snapchat, has focused his attention on a state legislation known as Alexandra’s Law. The law would compel social media companies to include language that users acknowledge which would make drug prosecutions easier if they result from a social media transaction.
“We’re all tied together by fentanyl,” he said of the community of parents. “But many of us have varying stories.”
Capelouto’s bill hasn’t made it out of committee in the California Legislature.
Despite the proliferation of bills, not everyone is enthusiastic. Numerous technologists and politicians have raised concerns about privacy issues they say are created by the legislation and third-party monitoring applications.
Michael Karanicolas, executive director of UCLA Institute for Technology, Law and Policy, warned that making specific laws around children and social media could create a heightened level of surveillance people may not be comfortable with.
“Anything that requires platforms to create special tools or components for users that are under 16 will, by definition, require them to do more to track the age of their younger users — which can create an extra layer of surveillance,” he said. “Regulations impacting this sector should be carefully calibrated to guard against harmful unintended consequences.”
Jesse Lehrich co-founder of tech watchdog Accountable Tech, reacted to a description of the draft bill by raising concerns about child privacy. “It’s a massive invasion of children’s privacy and freedom to learn and grow,” he said. “And it creates nightmarish scenarios, like an LGBTQ kid being outed by these apps, or data being weaponized against a teen who needed an abortion in a state where it’s been criminalized.”
Berkman responded to the invocation of such scenarios by saying, “Third-party safety software for family use has existed for a while now without these hypothetical so-called nightmare scenarios because that is not how they actually function; but very real, daily horrors continue to happen to children particularly LGBT youth, from using social media which is why we need Sammy’s Law.”
Similar surveillance applications that are used by some schools, including Bark’s school software, have attracted intense criticism from lawmakers like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.
When asked about these concerns, Wasserman Schultz said, “SAMMY’s Law is designed to enhance the ability of parents to protect their own children from the perils of social media such as suicide, bullying and substance abuse. This legislation has nothing to do with any third party monitoring products in schools.”
Emma Llansó, director of the Free Expression Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology said that the software poses privacy issues in any context.
“Any tool that monitors young people’s online activity and claims to report whether they’re engaged in ‘risky’ behavior can threaten the privacy and safety of young people,” she said. “Parental use of these tools can risk increasing conflict between parents and children, whether over mistaken reports that kids are engaged in inappropriate activity, or by exposing sensitive information like a teenager’s sexual identity to an unsympathetic parent.”