A bipartisan group of senators announced a new piece of legislation this week geared towards protecting children from aspects of social media they say are contributing to the mental health crisis impacting America’s youth.
The Protecting Kids on Social Media Act would set the minimum age of social media users to 13. For teens between the ages of 13 and 18, parental consent would be required, and platforms would be banned from using algorithms to recommend content to those young users. Adults would have to create an account for their teens, providing a valid form of ID to become users on a platform, according to the bill.
Children under 13, however, will still be allowed to view content on social media sites, the bill says, as long as it doesn’t require an individual to log in to do so.
There are four lawmakers sponsoring the bill, Republican Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Alabama’s Katie Britt alongside Democratic Sens. Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Connecticut’s Chris Murphy, who say America’s mental health crisis weighs most heavily on adolescents, especially young girls.
“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.
Cotton, meanwhile said many social media companies claim to not allow kids under 13 on their platforms, and instead rely on self-reporting methods, which can be easily bypassed by children.
During the announcement, Britt said it’s important to take a step back so parents can teach kids how to use social media for good while staying safe. Social media, she noted, can be difficult enough to digest for individuals well over 18.
“As adults, how many of you have struggled with what someone has posted on social media, or what someone has said or what someone has done?,” she asked.
A majority of teens say they use social media platforms like TikTok and YouTube at least once a day, and others admit to using the sites almost “constantly,” according to a recent Pew Research study. Over half of the teens polled said it would be hard for them to stop using social media.
The new legislation will put “parents back in control” of what kids experience online, Cotton said. He said if an adolescent is too young for other real world experiences and responsibilities, from signing contracts, opening a banking account and watching rated R movies, then they are too young to witness some content on these platforms.
Schatz said, “The growing evidence is clear: social media is making kids more depressed and wreaking havoc on their mental health,” adding, “while kids are suffering, social media companies are profiting. This needs to stop.”
The senators cited disturbing results from a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, which found 42% high school students surveyed experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness over the last year.
Twenty-two percent seriously contemplated attempting suicide, with one in four young women going as far as to formulate a plan on how they would carry it out.
Murphy, a father of two, said the warning signs of social media’s impact on kids are abundantly clear and that now is the time to take action.
“This is a reality that we don’t have to accept. The alarm bells about social media’s devastating impact on kids have been sounding for a long time, and yet time and time again, these companies have proven they care more about profit than preventing the well-documented harm they cause,” he said. “None of this is out of Congress’s control.”
A statement issued by several advocacy groups that focus on the safe use of social media raised concerns about the legislation. They include Common Sense Media, Fairplay for Kids and the Center for Digital Democracy, which said though the bill is “well-intentioned,” some aspects take the wrong approach.
The advocacy groups said they support the banning of algorithmic recommendations targeting minors; however, they believe the bill is burdensome to parents, creates unrealistic bans and could be harmful to kids in unhealthy living situations.
“By requiring parental consent before a teen can use a social media platform, vulnerable minors, including LGBTQ+ kids and kids who live in unsupportive households, may be cut off from access to needed resources and community,” the group statement reads.
The group also said the minimum age requirement tied to parental consent jeopardizes an adolescent user’s privacy. James P. Steyer, founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, said in the statement that the group appreciates the senators’ efforts and they look forward to working with them in the future, “but this is a life or death issue for families and we have to be very careful about how to protect kids online.”
Steyer recommended social media companies shoulder the responsibility for making the internet a safe space for kids to avoid making the government the middle man between parents and their children.