Effort to limit children’s social media access draws bipartisan support in the Senate

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Congressional efforts to regulate the internet to shield minors from harm online is an old story, going back to the internet’s earliest days of popular use in the mid-1990s. After largely unsuccessful attempts, lawmakers are taking another whack at it.

And, as before, detractors worry the proposal, however well-intentioned, could sacrifice the privacy and free speech of internet users. The steep price of enacting online regulations for children may prove costly to users of all ages, they warn.

At issue is a proposed law from a bipartisan group of senators that would keep children under 13 years of age from being on social media at all. The bill would further require parental permission for social media use by youths ages 13 through 17. It also would forbid social media platforms from using algorithms to recommend content to that age group.

Sens. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Katie Britt (R-AL) have joined Sens. Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Chris Murphy (D-CT) to sponsor the Protecting Kids on Social Media Act. In his announcement of the proposal, Cotton wrote, “Our bill will put parents back in control of what their kids experience online.”

Concerns about children being psychologically harmed by the social media experience got a boost in Congress after a former Meta executive testified in 2021 with claims that the company knew of the dangers but did not act to counter them. While there is still significant debate in the mental health community over the real risks and benefits of social media for younger users, as a political matter, a consensus has rapidly formed against the platforms.

Opponents of the regulation say only parents are equipped to make online decisions for their children and that some teenagers find opportunities for supportive communities online that are unavailable to them in the real world.

But supporters of the bill worry that children are spending too much time online, missing out on real-world experiences, and being left with depression and anxiety as a result. That narrative is now widespread among politicians in Washington and in many state legislatures.

Arkansas, California, and Utah have already passed state-level restrictions on access to social media. These bills will face legal challenges, but similar, politically popular proposals remain under consideration in Connecticut, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio, and Texas.

If Congress were to act at the federal level, these state laws may or may not be preempted. And both state and federal proposals face constitutional hurdles.

Because restricting minors requires the age verification of all users, adults lacking a driver’s license or another form of identification may be inadvertently kept off social media. That unintended consequence may constitute a violation of free speech that the courts find intolerable.

Age verification also eliminates the constitutionally protected and venerated American tradition of anonymous speech. Jeff Kosseff, professor of cyber law at the U.S. Naval Academy and author of the recent book United States of Anonymous: How the First Amendment Shaped Online Speech, tweeted that stripping anonymity from users would leave “whistleblowers, political dissidents, domestic violence victims, and so many others” unable to speak safely using their real names, without a voice.

Practically speaking, the bill’s age verification also forces a big trade-off on privacy, a significant online policy concern at both the state and the national level. In the case of the proposed federal bill, social media companies would need to collect a great deal more personally identifiable information from their users and also store that information to verify their efforts in case of future legal action questioning their compliance with the restrictions against minors. This inadvertently creates a greater chance of user information being misused or stolen.

Read the full article on the Washington Examiner.