Senators Unveil Bipartisan Bill to Set Age Restrictions for Social Media

Samantha Flom
By Samantha Flom
April 26, 2023Congress
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Legislation introduced on April 26 by a group of bipartisan senators would set a minimum age requirement for social media use and impose other restrictions on how such platforms present content to minors.

Sponsored by Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), and Katie Britt (R-Ala.), the bill requires social media platforms to verify that users are over the age of 13 and to obtain parental consent for users age 13 to 17.

The bill also prohibits social media companies from using algorithms to determine what content is presented.

“We are now more than a decade into the largest epidemic of teen mental illness on record, and we do know what’s driving it: social media and its algorithmic boosting that uses kids’ personal data to manipulate them,” Schatz said while announcing the bill at a press conference on April 26.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest “Youth Risk Behavior Survey,” a staggering 42 percent of high school students—including 57 percent of female students and 22 percent of males—experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in 2021 (pdf).

Additionally, 22 percent of students reported having seriously considered attempting suicide, and 16 percent said they had been electronically bullied through texting or social media within the last year.

Social Media and Poor Mental Health

Citing those figures, Schatz said there was a clear link between social media use and poor mental health—a link social media companies exploit for profit.

“As for-profit businesses, social media companies have a responsibility to maximize revenue, meaning there’s a direct correlation between agitating kids and satisfying investors,” he asserted. “It’s not a stretch to say these companies have a near obligation to upset an entire generation of children on a persistent basis. We must act.”

Britt noted that the pressures children experience in school have greatly increased with the introduction and evolution of social media.

“Think back to junior high, think back to middle school,” she said. “Think about the things that people said to you, or they said to somebody else about you. Imagine if those things were memorialized forever online. … It follows you for a lifetime.”

And those negative effects aren’t solely felt by kids, she added, noting that adults often experience them while on social media.

But while acknowledging that discussing the potential harms of such platforms with kids can be challenging, Britt also stressed that those conversations are necessary.

“We have to take a step back and, as parents, say, ‘How can we protect our children, teach them how to use this tool—to use it for good—and to be intentional in doing that?’”

Enforcement

Although most social media platforms already require users to be at least 13 years old, their verification processes have proven easy to circumvent.

Speaking to that issue, Cotton—the bill’s leading Republican co-sponsor—said the new legislation will require companies to take “reasonable steps” to verify a user’s age, whether that means creating their own system, using a third-party contractor, or using a voluntary pilot program that would be created through the Department of Commerce expressly for that purpose.

“It simply imposes a burden of reasonableness on these companies—which is widespread across the law—and says that if you don’t follow reasonable steps given the state of technology today, you can be held accountable by the Federal Trade Commission or by state attorneys general for inflicting these harms on minors,” Cotton said.

However, the bill may end up in competition with similar legislation introduced last year by Sens. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).

Although that bill, dubbed the Kids’ Online Safety Act, was never voted on, the senators are expected to reintroduce it shortly.

Additionally, the new bill may also face challenges from social media companies and tech lobbyists who oppose stricter regulations on the industry. Schatz said he and the other sponsors deliberately kept the bill’s details private as they were developing the legislation for this reason.

“The tech industry is going to come at this bill, and every other kids’ online safety bill, with everything it’s got,” he said. “But the burden of proof is on those who want to protect the status quo, because the status quo is making a whole generation of users mentally ill.”

From The Epoch Times

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