Congress needs to protect kids, not Big Tech

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Social media is a threat to our children. A bipartisan Congress is now stepping up to make Big Tech products safe for our children; but the social media companies are putting their incredible lobbying power behind efforts to break the momentum.

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s May 2023 advisory warning found “ample” evidence that social media use presents “a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.” And a recent paper by the Institute for Family Studies and Gallup shows that access to social media has led to higher suicide rates for teenagers. “Teens who spend more than 5 hours a day on social media,” the report found, “were 2.5 times more likely to express suicidal thoughts or harm themselves, 2.4 times more likely to hold a negative view of their body, and 40% more likely to report a lot of sadness the day before.”

Social media not only impacts teens’ mental health but their physical health, as well. A recent study in the Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care found kids experience “anxiety, respiratory alterations, trembling, perspiration, agitation, disorientation and tachycardia” when they are not near their phones, their portals to social media and the internet.

Do these symptoms sound familiar? They should, because they are the same symptoms of an addict withdrawing from nicotine or hard drugs. But unlike other addictive substances, social media platforms are completely unregulated by the government.

Moms and dads have thus been left on their own to try to fend off this tech-induced health crisis, contending against the allure of products engineered by the most powerful corporations in history to be maximally addictive to their kids.

Big Tech is not only indifferent to the harms children are suffering from its products, but, as made evident in recent lawsuits, there is  strong evidence that they intentionally perpetuate the problem. In October, a bipartisan group of 42 state attorneys general sued Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, for targeting young users with features designed to secure “compulsive and extended use” in order to “maximize profit.”

Heck, even YouTube’s CEO says that they can’t (or more likely won’t) protect kids without legislation.

Lawmakers are finally stepping up. In response to Big Tech’s unwillingness to change and inability to regulate themselves, enter Congress’s bipartisan framework called the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA). If passed, KOSA would require social media companies to provide parents and adolescents with tools to help safeguard the experience of kids on social media. What’s more, KOSA would impose a “duty of care” on platforms to ensure that they are not using design features made for adults on child users, such as algorithms pushing sexual exploitation material or violent videos to children. KOSA’s duty of care provides attorneys general with a clear path forward to address these harms and keep Big Tech accountable when they hurt children.

A wide range of experts, organizations, and researchers focused on protecting kids online on both sides of the political spectrum, including the American Psychological Association, have endorsed KOSA’s framework. KOSA’s targeted bipartisan approach will ensure that parents have the ability to protect their kids online from content that hurts their development and mental health. This is something everyone should be able to get behind.

Everyone, that is, except Big Tech. Big Tech and their advocates are asserting outlandish claims to kill the bill. Probably the most bizarre argument from Big Tech allies is that KOSA’s duty of care would allow the government to censor content.

In reality, KOSA’s duty of care is solely about product design, not content. The act requires a social media platform to take “reasonable measures” to mitigate specific harms to children in the design and operation of any products or features used by minors. It targets specific conduct leveraged by Big Tech known to harm children, like using their algorithms and designs to encourage eating disorders, sexual exploitation and the use of narcotic drugs. Finally, Section 3(b) of the bill also explicitly contains a limiting provision. It states: “Nothing [in this law] shall be construed to require a covered platform to prevent or preclude… any minor from deliberately and independently searching for, or specifically requesting, content….” The bill’s language is clear: a platform’s obligations under the Duty of Care cannot be construed to be about the existence or removal of pieces of content.

The bill would grant children and parents more control over children’s experiences on the platforms and what they see; and prevents tech companies from taking those choices away from minor users with the design of their automatic features or algorithms. 

Frankly, given its strong bipartisan support, there should be little standing in the way of KOSA passing. But Big Tech is doing everything they can to derail it. When the safety of children is hanging in the balance, the stakes could not be higher — and Congress needs to stop dragging its feet. Passing a strong bipartisan law to protect kids from the harms of Big Tech is a win for everyone, most especially for American parents and children against Big Tech.

Clare Morell is Senior Policy Analyst at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where she directs their Technology and Human Flourishing Project. Joel Thayer is the president of the Digital Progress Institute. Michael Toscano is executive director of the Institute for Family Studies.  

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