Gov. Glenn Youngkin and Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, hold a “Parents Matter” discussion at a Henrico County elementary school. (Graham Moomaw/Virginia Mercury)
At the latest of three “Parents Matter” town halls he’s hosting around Virginia ahead of pivotal General Assembly elections this fall, Gov. Glenn Youngkin hit on his usual themes of giving parents a bigger role in schools, raising expectations for student achievement and finding “multiple pathways” for young Virginians to start careers.
But one of the biggest topics of discussion over the roughly hour and a half Youngkin spent interacting with a crowd at a Henrico County elementary school was one that defies easy policy solutions: the impact of social media on children and teenagers.
“I do think this topic of social media and the … destructive influence that it is having on our children is one we all need to run to,” Youngkin said. “We have to run to educate ourselves. … Parents want more information so that they can engage more productively and more restrictively with their children on what’s happening in their social media life. That’s going to be a collective effort that we’re going to have to work on together.”
Both Youngkin and Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico — the co-headliner for the event at Crestview Elementary School — linked social media to the broader issues of bullying and youth mental health struggles.
Dunnavant, whose blue-tilting district in the Richmond suburbs has made her one of the most endangered Republican incumbents of the 2023 election cycle, said the solution to parental concerns about social media will probably be “a multitude of things,” including anti-bullying hotlines and a closer look at the data-driven algorithms popular apps like TikTok use to serve up images and videos to young viewers.
As the two political figures took questions from parents concerned about strangers contacting their children on Instagram, the challenge of disappearing messages on Snapchat and the seeming futility of trying to control what kids do online, Dunnavant and Youngkin repeatedly returned to the overarching message of parental empowerment.
“Parents have to know the things to which their kids are being exposed so that they can guide their children in their understanding of those things and their determining right and wrong,” said Dunnavant. “Because that is a parent’s duty and prerogative.”
When Youngkin won the 2021 gubernatorial race against former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, his “parents’ rights” platform centered largely on ending COVID-19 mask mandates and giving parents more control over what their children are learning and reading in K-12 schools. Two years later, as Youngkin and his Republican allies look to take full control of a General Assembly where Republicans and Democrats are currently splitting power, the series of “Parents Matter” events Youngkin is hosting this summer offer a glimpse into how that message is being refined and redeployed in 2023.
In addition to the Henrico gathering, parent-themed town halls, organized by the governor’s office instead of his political team, have been held in the Roanoke area and Prince William County, with another coming up in the Fredericksburg area.
Tuesday’s event in Henrico also showed some of the rougher edges of what social conservatives mean by “parents’ rights” when a man in the audience stood and urged Youngkin to take further action to restrict LGBTQ-themed books and lessons in schools and ban medical treatments for minors pursuing gender transition care. The man, who did not announce his name but described himself as a father, grandfather and great-grandfather, said the process of challenging books in Henrico was too complicated and asked Youngkin to address an “epidemic going in our country today of gender dysphoria and gender confusion.”
Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, introduced legislation during the 2023 General Assembly session that would have banned medical transitions for minors. That proposal, which mirrored laws passed by several other Republican-led states, was swiftly voted down in a Democratic-controlled Senate committee.
In response to the question Tuesday, the governor did not say directly whether he intends to seek additional restrictions on books or the use of puberty blockers and surgeries for transgender youth. Instead, Youngkin noted that he had signed a law requiring parental notification for sexually explicit reading assignments and rolling back transgender-inclusive school policies approved by former Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration. The governor emphasized that his administration’s new policies on transgender students, which several school divisions have indicated they don’t intend to follow, require schools to inform parents about “life-changing” gender identity issues involving their child.
“A parent must be in the room. And it should not happen without them,” Youngkin said. “Of course there are moments where there are sincere concerns about neglect or abuse at home. And there are clear protections for this in federal law and in state law.”
Democrats and transgender rights advocates have denounced the new policies as punitive and cruel, arguing they could expose students to harm from unsupportive parents.
“Instead of addressing the very real issues we have ahead of us, Governor Youngkin’s response is to escalate a culture war and drop a policy that harms kids, removes resources for teachers and ignores the rights of parents in Virginia,” Narissa Rahaman, executive director of LGBTQ rights group Equality Virginia, said in a statement last month responding to Youngkin’s school policies.
While speaking to reporters after the event, Youngkin did not give a direct answer when asked whether he would support banning gender transition care for minors.
“First we have to get parents at the table,” Youngkin said. “The previous administration’s policy did not require parents to be at the table. This is our first stop.”
At other points during the event, both Youngkin and Dunnavant stressed that their view of parental rights also means parents have a responsibility to set firm boundaries.
“I always took great pride when one of our children came up to us and said, ‘You’re the meanest parents ever,’” Youngkin joked. “We’d hug and say, ‘My job is not to be your friend. It’s to be your parent.’”
Dunnavant, who said she “looked at everything” her children did on their phones, said young people need structure and guidance.
“I don’t know how we got this off track,” said Dunnavant, a doctor facing a tough electoral challenge this year from Del. Schuyler Van Valkenburg, D-Henrico, a high school civics teacher. “When I grew up, the scariest authority unit in my life was the parent-teacher team.”
The two Republicans largely focused on policies they had already championed as opposed to laying out new, untested proposals.
Youngkin touted a bipartisan law he signed this year that requires schools to report bullying incidents to affected families within 24 hours. He also noted his unsuccessful attempt to limit tech companies’ ability to gather data on social media users under 18. The crowd applauded when Youngkin reminded them an online age-verification bill, mainly aimed at blocking minors from accessing pornography websites, resulted in the popular site Pornhub cutting off access in Virginia.
During the discussion on social media, Youngkin said he thinks the state and federal government can play a policy role, while indicating that the most immediate step could be to offer parents more resources and education on how social media and cell phones work and how potential harms can be avoided.
“There’s some fear,” Youngkin told reporters afterward when describing what he’s heard from attendees at the town halls. “And you can see it and hear it as to what the ramifications are if they don’t get this right.”
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