There must be a Barbie version of Chris Murphy somewhere.
Temporary overexposure tends to happen when a senator is making the rounds in the home state. We caught up with Murphy during an editorial board meeting Monday. Every journalist has a favorite topic they want to talk to him about. At the end of our session, news reporter Alex Putterman stops by to throw a few questions at Murphy, resulting in stories on potential policy regarding seclusions and restraints in schools and about University of Connecticut possibly moving to the Big 12 (“UConn belongs in the Big East,” Murphy opined).
Readers playing the Chris Murphy version of “Where’s Waldo” could spot his appearances at a Town Hall meeting at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, promoting National Hot Dog Day at Capitol Lunch in New Britain, parrying with Hearst columnist Dan Haar about whether he really needed to raise a record amount of early campaign funds and commiserating about loneliness with Colin McEnroe on the latter’s radio show.
In between, Murphy made cameos in stories about the Connecticut State Trooper ticket scandal, our editorial about housing and my colleague Hugh Bailey’s column about how the congressman alienated some followers on Twitter. The senator likes to test-drive unfiltered notions on the platform. Other powerbrokers prefer more rewrites than, well, “Barbie.”
Somewhere in there, Murphy managed to publish an op-ed in The New York Times about how “Algorithms are making kids desperately unhappy.”
Despite all that evidence, Murphy is not an algorithm. And there was plenty of worthy ground we covered that went unpublished, including details about his recent visit with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, America’s biggest concern from his vantage on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee (one word: “China”), the need for continued investment into Metro-North and providing relief for state residents and farmers vexed by flooding.
For all that, and more, the quote I circled in my notebook was this: “I think you’ve got to start regulating TikTok like cigarettes.”
When Murphy is trying not to draw attention to something, he sort of mutters quickly. He only mentioned a certain former president once, mumbling “donaldtrump” as one word.
But he pumps the brakes for issues he really cares about.
“I think (TikTok is) really … bad … for kids.”
The Democrat reconsiders his words as though they were yet another first draft tweet.
“Maybe it’s not as bad as cigarettes. Cigarettes are always bad and there are places where TikTok is harmless. There are places where TikTok can present some benefits. But there is enough harm in TikTok and Instagram and Twitter and, to a lesser extent, YouTube, that requires all of us to dramatically start upping our protections for our kids.”
And with that, we’re just a couple of dads talking. I remind Murphy that his 50th birthday is coming up (on Aug. 3). It’s a benchmark, a time to reflect and contextualize. I ask if he’s ever lost an election, as I don’t know of any since his first campaign for the Southington Planning and Zoning Commission at age 24.
“Not as an adult.” Murphy laughs. “I ran for some student government positions I didn’t win in high school.”
He seems to read where I’m going with all this chatter about birthdays, vintage campaigns, social media and children.
“It is totally not a coincidence that I have become much more active on the issue of regulating social media since my kids started using it,” acknowledges Murphy, who is a member of the Senate Subcommittee of Children and Families.
And yes, he has a lot of thoughts on the matter. A veteran member of Congress with thoughts on any matter tends to steer them into legislation. Murphy concedes that his own two boys, Owen and Rider, have “nuanced and complex thoughts” on issues he works on. They are the target audience for laws that would curtail youth access to social media.
That doesn’t mean reforms will be easy. Murphy acknowledges the ideological and Constitutional counterargument that parents should not have control over content.
It’s impossible to ignore that this is a parallel debate to the backlash from conservatives over the likes of Pride Month content on library bookshelves. But it’s not the same thing. I, for one, will never be quick enough to outrace the algorithm that tries to lure my 11-year-old from a YouTube car video to invitations for flirting apps.
Unlike the library debate, the Protecting Kids on Social Media Act is bipartisan. It would set the minimum age to use social media at 13, and require parental consent up to 18.
Murphy has come a long way from the political wunderkind who made gun control his signature issue after the Sandy Hook tragedy in 2012. On the cusp of 50, he says phone addictions are robbing children of the rituals of childhood. He asserts that “our descent into screens” is crippling the spiritual and emotional health of the nation.
“Right now there’s nothing stopping an 8-year-old from setting up a TikTok account,” Murphy laments. “There is little a parent can do.”
Maybe not most parents.