Why child safety bills are popping up all over the US
Bills apparently aimed at making the internet safer for children and teens have recently been popping up across the United States. Dozens of bills in states including Utah, Arkansas, Texas, Maryland, Connecticut and New York have been introduced in recent months. They are at least partly a response to concerns, particularly among parents, about the potentially negative impact of social media on children’s mental health.
However, the content of these bills varies widely from state to state. While some aim to protect privacy, others risk eroding it. Some could have a chilling effect on freedom of expression online. Many measures are likely to face legal challenges, and some are not even necessarily enforceable. And overall, these bills will further fragment an already highly fractured regulatory landscape in the United States.
The situation is very messy and complex. But beneath the surface, there are important arguments that will shape the regulation of technology in the United States. Let me introduce you to three of the most important debates.
First, most bills address children’s right to online privacy. However, while some seek to increase privacy, others eat away at it.And even when these bills are well-intentioned, that doesn’t mean they’re currently feasible. California’s Age-Friendly Design Code, passed last August and due to take effect in July 2024, aims to limit data collection from users under 18. It also instructs social media companies to assess how they use children’s personal data in content recommendation systems. . The law obliges websites to estimate the age of users, which, although complex, is already practiced by many platforms for advertising purposes. Social media companies oppose the law and have already sued the state of California to challenge it on various grounds.
Utah and Arkansas laws, on the other hand, require social media companies to actually confirm the age of all users, which involves the creation of completely new verification techniques and raises questions about privacy. . Both laws passed, but social media companies and privacy advocates are fighting back against them. They say the laws are unconstitutional, and it’s likely that this battle will end up in court. Utah law further requires social media platforms to provide features that allow a parent or guardian to access the accounts and private messages of users under 18.
Second, the bills spark a debate around parental oversight. Utah and Arkansas bills require those under 18 to obtain parental consent before creating social media accounts. Utah’s law goes even further, requiring parents to give consent for children to access social media from 10:30 p.m. March 2024. Research has shown that children are able to easily circumvent existing age requirements online. And the extent of parental supervision varies by state and age. A proposed bill in Connecticut, for example, would require children under 16 to obtain parental consent to create a social media account.
And finally, the bills have major ramifications for young people’s rights of expression and access to information. Some states impose explicit restrictions: in Texas, for example, a child safety bill attempts to ban minors from accessing information that could lead to eating disorders. The exact nature of this type of information remains unclear. But in most other states, the restrictions are even more vague, which could lead social media companies to remove content for fear of being sued, says Samir Jain, vice president of policy at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington, DC-based think tank. In other words, these laws could have a chilling effect on what people say and do online.
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