Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologized Wednesday to parents in the audience of a Senate online child safety hearing who say that Instagram contributed to their children’s suicide or exploitation.
“I’m sorry for everything you’ve all gone through,” Zuckerberg said, after Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., pressed him on whether he’d apologize to the parents directly. “It’s terrible. No one should have to go through the things that your families have suffered.”
The exchange happened during a Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing called “Big Tech and the Online Child Sexual Exploitation Crisis,” where lawmakers grilled Zuckerberg and the CEOs of TikTok, Discord, X and Snap.
Parents held up photos of their children as senators questioned the CEOs. Many were also wearing blue ribbons that read, “STOP Online Harms! Pass KOSA!,” referring to the Kids Online Safety Act, which would create a duty of care for social media companies.
Some of the parents audibly hissed when Zuckerberg entered the hearing room Wednesday. He has faced intense scrutiny and criticism over the years around child safety issues on Meta’s platforms.
Zuckerberg’s words to the parents at the hearing were not into the microphone, but were audible on livestream.
After apologizing, the CEO told parents that “this is why we invest so much and are going to continue doing industry-leading efforts to make sure that no one has to go through the types of things that your families have had to suffer.”
The Meta founder faced perhaps the toughest line of questioning at the hearing, with senators pressing him on nonconsensual sexually explicit images of children on Instagram, drug deaths linked to his social media platforms and an array of other issues.
The hearing comes as Meta faces a federal lawsuit from dozens of states alleging that Facebook and Instagram intentionally created “psychologically manipulative” features to keep kids addicted, and that the corporation hid internal data that would reveal these platforms’ harms to young users.
While questioning Zuckerberg, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., referenced a series of emails the CEO allegedly received from Meta’s global affairs director Nick Clegg.
In one email, Clegg had written, “We are not on track to succeed for our core well-being topics: problematic use, bullying and harassment connections and SSI,” which stands for “suicidal self-injury.”
Clegg, a former deputy prime minister of the United Kingdom, wrote in a subsequent email that Meta’s ability to ensure safety on its platforms was being hampered by a lack of investment in those efforts.
“Nick Clegg was asking you, pleading with you, for resources to back up the narrative to fulfill the commitments,” Blumenthal said. Zuckerberg was not give time to reply.
Soon after, Hawley also pointed to a Wall Street Journal investigation from 2021 that reported some Meta internal documents showed the company knew Instagram imposed negative mental health effects on teenagers. Zuckerberg disputed Hawley referring to these details as “facts” and claimed the senator was cherrypicking the research.
And in answering a question targeted at all the social media executives testifying, Zuckerberg told senators Meta has 40,000 people working within its trust and safety division.
Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vt., later questioned the CEOs on a wave of layoffs last year that struck employees in their respective trust and safety departments. Zuckerberg responded saying Meta’s layoffs were “across the board” and were “not really focused on that area.”
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., also pressed the CEOs on their commitments to safety, striking some balance between their humanity and the companies they oversee.
“At the end of the day, I find it hard to believe that any of you people started this business, some of you in your college dorm rooms, for the purposes of creating the evil that is being perpetrated on your platforms,” he said. “But I hope that every single waking hour, you’re doing everything you can to reduce it.”