Deb Schmill (3rd from right) with others advocating in Washington for the Kids Online Safety Act/ Credit: Courtesy Deb Schmill

It was a dramatic moment that made national headlines. During a contentious Senate hearing about online child safety, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta, parent company of Facebook and Instagram, apologized to parents in the hearing room whose children were harmed by social media platforms. One of those parents was Needham resident Deb Schmill.

“I was not expecting that. Not at all. It was a bit surreal,” said Schmill.

Schmill was at the hearing as part of her advocacy for the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA), a Senate bill that would require social media platforms to provide tools and safeguards to protect children’s health and well-being online and create accountability for social media’s harm to children. 

Her advocacy stems from the death of her daughter Becca, at the age of 18, from fentanyl poisoning after purchasing the drugs with the assistance of a social media platform. Schmill founded the Becca Schmill Foundation to push for policies that promote the emotional well-being of adolescents. 

“I’ve been pretty intensely working on the Kids Online Safety Act for about a year-and-a-half. And that has included many trips to Washington, D.C.,” said Schmill, who spent two months living there last fall to be able to meet regularly with senators and their staffs. “I do think that the relationship-building was really key over those two months, particularly with Senator Warren’s office and Senator Markey’s office.”

Attending the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Jan. 31 was one of many activities Schmill has participated in with other parents to bring attention to the issue and press for passage of KOSA. Zuckerberg was one of five social media CEOs testifying at the hearing and was challenged by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Missouri) to apologize to the families present.

“I feel like Mark Zuckerberg didn’t have a choice,” said Schmill. “He was put on the spot. He had to turn around and apologize to us.”

As Zuckerberg turned and stood to face them, Schmill and the other parents and family members stood and held up photos of their children. He was the only one of the five tech leaders at the hearing to address them, and the scene and apology drew widespread attention.

“I’m sorry for everything you’ve all been through. No one should have to go through the things that your families have suffered,” Zuckerberg said.

“While it seems a pretty thin, or not necessarily a real apology, I don’t think Mark Zuckerberg wanted our children to die,” said Schmill. “But I think that he just, he has made some terrible, terrible decisions and it was quite a moment to have him turn around and actually do that.“

Schmill said she and the other families felt the hearing gave a lot of momentum to their cause. There are opponents of the bill who say aspects of it raise freedom of speech issues. But it has broad bipartisan support and is expected to come to the Senate floor for a vote in March or April. “And then I really believe there’s little doubt that it will pass the Senate,” said Schmill. “But after that we start all over again with the House.”

She’s learned over her many months of advocacy that moving legislation is a long process. “And it’s frustrating,” she said. “We, the survivor parents, say everyday this does not get passed, children die. And to be working on a bill where you know those are the implications, and to see it get stalled, the process is infuriating. So it’s difficult, but we have to keep going because we have to make sure that it does happen.”

Schmill said she’ll continue her D.C. advocacy in the coming months via Zoom until the bill passes the Senate. She also is drawing attention to the topic locally by supporting the Needham Online Safety Coalition, which helps caregivers navigate the online environment. The organization will host an event on Feb. 29 at Town Hall. 

Information for the event will be available from Cathy Wong at the Needham Community Council.

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