A new piece of legislation aimed at protecting America’s kids from the harmful effects of social media has been introduced in the Senate. The Protecting Kids on Social Media Act is a bipartisan bill sponsored by Republican Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Katie Britt of Alabama, alongside Democratic Senators Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Chris Murphy of Connecticut. The bill aims to set a minimum age of 13 for social media users, requiring parental consent for teens between 13 and 18, and banning the use of algorithms to recommend content to young users.
“The business model of these apps is simple, the duration of time the user spends on the app and the extent to which they engage with content is directly correlated with ad revenue,” Schatz said, arguing that companies want users to spend long amounts of time on their platforms but the results can be “catastrophic.”
“Social media [companies] have stumbled onto a stubborn, devastating fact: The way to get kids to linger on the platforms and to maximize platforms is to upset them,” Schatz told reporters at a press conference announcing the bill on Capitol Hill Wednesday.
The senators argue that social media has contributed to the mental health crisis among American adolescents, particularly young girls. They cited a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study which found that 42% of high school students surveyed experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness over the last year, with 22% seriously contemplating suicide. The senators believe that parents should be in control of what their children experience online, and that social media platforms should not be able to target vulnerable young users with potentially harmful content.
However, the bill has received criticism from advocacy groups, including Common Sense Media, Fairplay for Kids, and the Center for Digital Democracy. While these groups support the ban on algorithmic recommendations targeting minors, they argue that the bill is burdensome to parents, creates unrealistic bans, and could be harmful to children in unhealthy living situations. They also contend that the minimum age requirement tied to parental consent jeopardizes an adolescent user’s privacy.
James P. Steyer, founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, suggested that social media companies should take responsibility for making the internet a safe space for kids rather than relying on the government to act as a middleman between parents and their children. He argued that protecting kids online is a “life or death issue for families,” and that caution must be exercised to ensure that any measures put in place do not inadvertently harm vulnerable young users.
The debate over the Protecting Kids on Social Media Act highlights the ongoing tension between the desire to protect young people from potentially harmful content and the need to respect individual privacy and freedom of expression. While the bill’s sponsors believe that setting a minimum age for social media users and requiring parental consent for teens is a necessary step to address the mental health crisis among America’s youth, opponents argue that these measures could have unintended consequences and undermine the privacy and autonomy of young users. As the debate continues, it is clear that finding a balance between protecting children from harm and respecting their rights and freedoms online will be a complex and ongoing challenge.