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As Advocates and Parents Rally, Youth Online Privacy Bills on Life Support

Bipartisan legislation would protect kids from the harms of social media algorithms and targeted ads, but lawmakers say reforms are stalled

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Sen. Ed Markey was getting quizzed on the viability of new online privacy laws for children when he took a brief but awkward pause. 

The Democrat from Massachusetts, who has long championed consumer privacy and become a key adversary of tech companies like Meta for monetizing user data, joined a Zoom call Tuesday evening to rally support for two bills he said would protect kids from being manipulated by social media algorithms. But he also brought some bad news: The legislation had “stalled” in Washington despite bipartisan support. 

Advocates this week are making a push to get the bipartisan bills — the Kids Online Safety Act and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act 2.0 — across the finish line. In a letter on Monday, 145 groups including Fairplay and Common Sense Media urged lawmakers to pass the legislation in the interests of protecting youth mental health, now considered at an all-time low in this country. 

But Markey seemed to lay out a path requiring Herculean effort. 

“Only the paranoid survive,” Markey said, adding that the legislation would pass if its supporters — and youth activists in particular — called their lawmakers and demanded they “pull this out of the pile of issues” and give it priority. “We’re going to try to get it over the finish line, but we need you to just have your energy level go higher and higher for these final couple of months and we will get it done.”

Click to watch Fairplay’s virtual rally for kids’ online safety

The legislative push comes a year after a Facebook whistleblower disclosed research showing that the social media app Instagram had a harmful effect on youth mental well-being, especially for teenage girls. The whistleblower, Frances Haugen, called on lawmakers to regulate social media companies — Meta owns Facebook and Instagram — that she accused of pursuing “astronomical profits” while knowingly putting its users at risk. Leaked internal research revealed the company knew Instagram made “body image issues worse for one in three teen girls” who blamed the social media platform for driving “increases in the rate of anxiety and depression” and, for some, suicidal thoughts. 

The Kids Online Safety Act would make tech companies liable if they expose young people to content deemed harmful, including materials that promote self-harm, eating disorders and substance abuse. It would also require parental controls that could be used to block adult content and to study systems to verify users’ age “at the device or operating system level.”

The Children’s Online Privacy Act 2.0, which expands a law that Markey championed in 1998 to cover older teens, would ban targeted advertisements directed at children and require companies to offer an “eraser button” that allows children and teens to remove their personal data. 

Former Facebook employee Frances Haugen (Getty Images)

But deep-pocketed tech companies, Sen. Richard Blumenthal said Tuesday, are standing in the way. 

“Our obstacles here are the big tech lobbyists,” he said. “They have armies of lobbyists. They pay them, they pay them very well. They hire them to block this legislation.”

While the legislation is designed to protect kids, some digital privacy experts say the rules could come with significant unintended consequences — and could lead to an age-verification system where all web users are made to submit documentation like a driver’s license, requiring them to hand over personal information to tech companies. 

On the Zoom call to bolster support for the bills was Vinaya Sivakumar, a high school senior from Ohio, who created her first social media profile when she was 12. What started out as being harmless, she said, quickly took a toll on her health. 

“It just snowballed into something that constantly perpetuated actions and thoughts like self-harm and eating disorders and it was really never let out of my sight,” said Sivakumar, referring to a stream of content she found harmful being fed to her by algorithms. “It almost encouraged me to make decisions that I didn’t necessarily feel were mine and my mental health was in the worst state ever.”

Kristin Bride, a mother and digital safety advocate from Oregon, implored lawmakers to pass the legislation for kids like her 16-year-old son Carson, who died by suicide in 2020 after he was “visciously bullied” by other kids on Snapchat who used third-party apps to conceal their identities. Last year, Bride filed suit against Snap, the company that owns the social media app Snapchat, and accused it of lacking safeguards to protect children from harassment. In response, Snap suspended two of the apps, Yolo and LMK. But a new anonymous app, NGL, has since cropped up. 

“Until social media companies are held accountable for their harmful products, they will always put profit over people,” Bride said, “and kids like Carson and so many others are just collateral damage.” 

Despite the heightened focus in Washington around digital rights and tech companies’ use of user data for targeted advertising, broader digital privacy legislation has also struggled this year. The American Data Privacy Protection Act, which would create a national digital privacy standard and limit the personal data that tech companies can collect about users, has hit roadblocks, including pushback from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. 

Earlier this month, Ireland’s Data Protection Commission fined Meta $400 million for violating European Union data privacy laws. The commission has been investigating the company for an Instagram setting that automatically sets the profiles of teenagers as public by default. 

Meanwhile, Meta has begun to roll out new child privacy tools on Instagram, including a feature that automatically routes new users younger than 16 to a version with limits on content deemed inappropriate.

The childrens’ safety legislation, which would strengthen rules that haven’t been updated for decades, has received support from a broad range of groups focused on youth well-being, including and the American Psychological Association and The Jed Foundation. But it’s also faced opposition from digital rights advocates including the Electronic Frontier Foundation. In a recent report, the group argues that while lawmakers deserve credit “for attempting to improve online data privacy for young people,” the plan would ultimately “require surveillance and censorship” of children and teens “and would greatly endanger the rights, and safety, of young people online.” 

“Data collection is a scourge for every internet user, regardless of age,” the report notes, but the legislation could ultimately force tech companies to further track their users. “Surveillance of young people is actually bad for them, even in the healthiest household, and is not a solution to helping young people navigate the internet.”

Disclosure: Campbell Brown oversees global media partnerships at Meta. Brown co-founded The 74  and sits on its board of directors.

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