She blames social media for contributing to her daughter’s death. On Wednesday this Colorado mom took her pain to Capitol Hill

· Jan. 31, 2024, 3:16 pm
Lori Schott (right) holds a photo of her daughter Annalee during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on January 31, 2024, on social media and online child safety. Annalee died by suicide after social media algorithms worsened her anxiety and depression.Lori Schott (right) holds a photo of her daughter Annalee during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on January 31, 2024, on social media and online child safety. Annalee died by suicide after social media algorithms worsened her anxiety and depression.Caitlyn Kim/CPR News
Lori Schott (right) holds a photo of her daughter Annalee during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on January 31, 2024, on social media and online child safety. Annalee died by suicide after social media algorithms worsened her anxiety and depression.

Editor's Note: This story contains details of self-harm. If you or someone you know is considering suicide or other acts of self-harm, please contact Colorado Crisis Services by calling 1-844-493-8255 or texting “TALK” to 38255 for free, confidential, and immediate support.

Five big tech CEOs testified in front of the Senate about social media and child safety, but it was the room full of grieving parents, holding up photos of their children, who had their voices heard.

Lori Schott of Sterling was one of those parents who said their child was irreparably harmed by social media. 

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She carried a framed 8x10 photo of her daughter, Annalee, captured with a bright smile, rosy cheeks, and a black cowboy hat over her long blonde hair, standing next to a horse amidst the backdrop of the green Eastern Plains. 

Annalee died by suicide in November 2020 at the age of 18.

“I went down to her room and I read her journals where she cited things from TikTok that said, ‘I might as well kill myself. I have no future.’ And other things where she compared her profile to other girls. ‘How would somebody love somebody as ugly as me?’” Schott recalled. “It erodes at your internal well-being. It erodes your mental health.”

Schott also learned afterward that Anna had witnessed a live-streamed suicide on the “For You” page of TikTok, an app they had forbidden her to use. 

Learning the extent to which social media affected her daughter’s well-being motivated Schott to come to the hearing, with the hope of preventing another family from going through the pain hers has.

“If it can save other kids and inform other parents to the dangers of these products, [then] I think I need to be (Anna’s) voice,” she said. “It’s the right thing to do, even though it’s the hardest thing to do.”

But more than anything, Schott wants to see Congress act. “We need to let the message be told that social media is a dangerous place. We need to get legislation in place that holds them accountable or we’re just going to continue to lose children.” 

Senators slam social media for not protecting kids

While none of the parents in the cavernous room testified at the hearing, the struggle children and families have gone through — from sexual exploitation to obtaining drugs through social media to damaging mental health — were center stage, starting with a video that opened the hearing. Young victims and parents shared their experiences with what Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin described as an online child sexual exploitation crisis in America.

In the hours that followed, lawmakers excoriated the heads of Meta, Discord, TikTok, X, and Snapchat.

At one point, urged by Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, Meta head Mark Zuckerberg turned around to the rows of parents present and apologized.

“I’m sorry for everything you’ve all gone through,” Zuckerberg said, after getting up to face the families, many of whom held photos of their children over their heads. “It’s terrible…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 your families have had to suffer.”

Mark ZuckerbergJose Luis Magana/AP Photo
Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg turns to address the audience during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024, to discuss child safety. X CEO Linda Yaccarino watches at left.

That was tough to hear, Schott said, because of everything else he and the other social media executives said in defense of their platforms.

“It didn’t do any good with the statements he was saying. It didn’t do any good to say he wouldn’t support (the Kids Online Safety Act). Where’s their moral compass in all this?”

The Kids Online Safety Act is one of several bipartisan child safety bills the committee has passed that the tech executives would not commit to supporting.

They did stress steps their companies have and continue to take to protect kids on their platforms, ranging from time limits to parental approvals to blocks on direct messages from strangers.

The head of X, Linda Yaccarino, said her company does back the STOP CSAM Act, which aims to combat sexual exploitation of children by promoting accountability and transparency in the tech industry. Additionally, Zuckerberg said he’d support legislation that “delivers what parents say they want: a clear system for age verification and parental control over what apps their kids are using. For example, three out of four parents want app store age verification, and four out of five parents want parental approval whenever teens download apps. We support this.”

Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who introduced the Kids Online Safety Act with GOP Sen. Marsha Blackburn and which counts Colorado Sen. John Hickenlooper as a co-sponsor, said the hearing showed Big Tech can’t be trusted to safeguard children or “grade their own homework.”

“We need strong rules and guardrails to give tools to parents and kids so they can take back control of their online lives,” he said during a break in the hearing. 

Meta and TikTok said they each have around 40,000 employees focused on trust and safety, X said they had 2,300, Snapchat said they had 2,000 and Discord said they had “hundreds” of employees doing the work.

Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet has also offered a bill to create a new independent agency to hold Big Tech accountable.

Senators on both sides of the aisle said they would continue to push for floor votes on a variety of bills to protect kids and hold social media companies accountable. 

Jaime PuertaManuel Balce Ceneta/AP Photo
Jaime Puerta, of Santa Clarita, Calif., holds a picture of his son Daniel Joseph Puerta-Johnson, during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024, on child safety online. Puerta's son died of fentanyl poisoning. He was 16 years old.

Ranking Member Sen. Lindsey Graham has a message to the families: Don’t quit.

“You’re making a difference. Through you we will get to where we need to go so other people won’t need to show a photo of their family,” he said, looking out at the crowded hearing room. “Hopefully, we can take your pain and turn it into something positive so nobody else has to hold up a sign.”

For her part, Schott wants social media companies’ feet held to the fire. “It shouldn’t take a bunch of parents with dead children to get change.”

She also had a message for kids: “Don’t let the social media platforms tell you who you are, what you are, how you look. You need to walk away from that.”

If you or someone you know is considering suicide or other acts of self-harm, please contact Colorado Crisis Services by calling 1-844-493-8255 or texting “TALK” to 38255 for free, confidential, and immediate support.

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