February 23, 2023
February has been (unofficial) child privacy month. These issues were the focus of last week's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, received the “loudest ovation” during the State of the Union, and popped up during the recent House Education and Workforce Committee hearing.
Here are this month's highlights and our big takeaways:
“Senators from both parties are once again taking aim at big tech companies, reigniting their efforts to protect children from "toxic content" online. At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday, they said they plan to "act swiftly" to get a bill passed this year that holds tech companies accountable.”
What Happened?: Committee members from both sides of the aisle were adamant that social media platforms are harming child and teen mental health and vacuuming up (the popular phrase of the day) and profiting from children’s data.
Resource of the Day: Many committee members pointed to the just-released CDC’s youth risk behavior report to back the claim that social media is harming children. The CDC report showed record high levels of sadness for teen girls; however, testimony from Dr. Mitch Prinstein, Chief Science Officer at the American Psychological Association, and recent studies explain that causation is hard to prove in this context. In a follow-up article, Dr. Prinstein also noted that, when used properly, social media can “feed teens' need for social connection in healthy ways,” particularly for marginalized teens. (P.S. we recommend these nuanced questions for families to consider on tech and youth mental health)
Suggested Fixes: There were a variety of recommendations for remedying harms caused by social media. Witnesses advocated that social media platforms implement design choices to make their platforms safer for children. There appeared to be universal, bipartisan support for reintroduction of the Kids Online Safety Act among committee members and witnesses (with no mention of the 90+ human rights and LGBTQ groups that opposed KOSA last year).
Probably Unrealistic: A few Senators seemed to doubt youthful ingenuity, suggesting solutions from making the “use of a minor’s data illegal” (Sen. Cornyn) to “just abolish social media for [children under 16]” (Sen. Kennedy). Sen Hawley argued that platforms should verify users’ ages before signing up (and, right after the hearing, introduced the MATURE Act which would require users to provide “government-issued identification” verifying that they are 16 or older before accessing certain platforms). This sentiment appears to be an increasingly attractive idea for state and federal legislators, though many experts argue it raises privacy risks and that current age-verification systems are “circumventable and intrusive.”
Changing 230: Section 230 (the subject of two cases before the Supreme Court this week) was brought up repeatedly as a law that stops parents from getting justice for children who have been harmed by social media companies. Senators on both sides of the aisle and every witness indicated support for repealing or reforming Section 230, though repealing or reforming Section 230 may create even more problems. More information about how Section 230 applies when children are harmed by social media can be found in this article.
What’s Next? We’ve already seen a few bills introduced post-hearing, and expect to see more introduced quickly, particularly reintroduction and movement of KOSA and COPPA 2.0. We’re crossing our fingers that we see more bills that reflect how complicated this issue really is; there are plenty of opportunities for social media to positively impact children’s lives (as some of the witnesses pointed out), kids are notorious for finding ways around restrictions, and solutions that protect kids need to account for the fact that what’s best for one child may not be best for all.
President Biden is also prioritizing children’s online safety. During his State of the Union address, President Biden advocated for bipartisan regulation to protect children online:
“We must finally hold social media companies accountable for the experiment they are running on our children for profit. And it’s time to pass bipartisan legislation to stop Big Tech from collecting personal data on kids and teenagers online, ban targeted advertising to children, and impose stricter limits on the personal data these companies collect on all of us."
While brief, his remark (and enthusiasm) had a big impact. This statement received the “loudest ovation” of the night from both Democrats and Republicans - so maybe bipartisan child privacy legislation will be possible in this divided Congress.
Finally, on February 8, a full committee hearing of the House’s Committee on Education and the Workforce, “American Education in Crisis”, heard testimony about how parents need to understand what rights they already have under Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment (PPRA). Clarity around what rights already exist in these laws will be critical because last Congress’ Parents Bill of Rights Act (PBOR) – likely to be reintroduced soon – included several significant amendments to FERPA and PPRA.