In a very momentous start to my new role as Campaign Manager for Youth Initiatives here at Accountable Tech, I accompanied Emma Lembke as she testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Protecting Our Children Online hearing on February 14th. It was my very first day on the job – the sky really is the limit.
Emma, a 20-year Alabama native, and Founder and Executive Director of the LOG OFF Movement, stood before the Judiciary committee to call upon Senators to act and meaningfully regulate tech companies that are willfully harming kids. Most importantly, Emma reminded the senators that they must include kids and teens when they push this agenda. She’s 20 and is already moving mountains in an issue area that legislators are slowly becoming familiar with, all while tech companies are moving fast (and breaking things) in their quest for profit.
How did we get here?
I’ll back up, because I’m new here and some of you may be too – it’s been several months of momentum for safer tech policy that prioritizes kids: multiple legislative bills were introduced over the last year that would hold tech companies accountable for their dangerous features that can harm minors. At the end of 2022, Congress came close to passing some of these bills, like the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA), that actively legislate towards proactive safety for kids on social media and the internet.
In President Biden’s State of the Union this year, he firmly echoed our call to action: “it’s time to pass bipartisan legislation to stop Big Tech…” And in a rapid turn of events just days after the SOTU, Senators Graham (R) and Durbin (D) convened a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month to continue this fight. Yes – bipartisan collaboration – you read that right!
Emma’s Power and Bravery
I watched from my seat in the audience of the hearing in what I honestly could only describe as awe, as Emma joined experts and survivor moms including Kristin Bride to demand that Senators stand up to tech companies and make the internet safer by design.
In her testimony, Emma bravely shared her experiences with the detrimental ways that social media impacted her mental health over the course of several of her most formative teen years. She firmly reminded Senators that her story is representative of her generation – Generation Z. Her generation is the first to grow up with the full scope of the internet at their fingertips. And, while social media has the incredible capacity for good, we are only beginning to understand its consequences.
As a senior in high school, Emma decided to take action for herself, her peers and future generations. She founded the LOG OFF Movement as a high school senior, lobbied lawmakers and organized coalitions of young people in her free time. She has demanded and won a seat at the table on behalf of her generation on one of the biggest political stages, in the same room where judicial nominations are considered and lawmakers are held accountable.
You could feel both the power of her testimony and the respect that the Senators and audience exuded for her bravery and strength. And when adversarial Senators tried to unravel the otherwise collegial hearing, Emma single handedly calmed the whole room. That’s not a hyperbole – when Senator Kennedy attempted to challenge each witness one by one Emma held her ground and stopped the Senator’s line of questioning. The following witness’ answer to the same line of questioning was “I agree with Ms. Lembke.”
At the hearing, Senators requested that Emma return to support this work with them as they push legislation along. As a leader in this issue area, she and her peers will continue to pave the way for legislation at the local and federal levels. It will take collective power and coalition building to stand up to the might of Big Tech companies that are prioritizing their profit over the health and wellbeing of current and future generations of young people.
The UK has already passed common sense reforms to protect kids online, and California was the first US state to unanimously pass a similar bipartisan law. This work is relatively new, but the path ahead is ripe with the potential for real, bipartisan and common sense victories for kids’ safety.
I’m just kicking off my role here at Accountable Tech, but what I know so far is that it’s absolutely imperative that we give kids – those who have been and will be impacted by tech policy – a seat at the table. We must listen to and amplify their stories, and we must help put power behind their incredible work in order to achieve real reform and accountability.