Why child safety bills are popping up all over the US

Bills ostensibly aimed at making the internet safer for children and teens have been popping up all over the United States recently. Dozens of bills in states including Utah, Arkansas, Texas, Maryland, Connecticut, and New York have been introduced in the last few months. They are at least partly a response to concerns, especially among parents, over the potentially negative impact of social media on kids’ mental health.

However, the content of these bills varies drastically from state to state. While some aim to protect privacy, others risk eroding it. Some could have a chilling effect on free speech online. There’s a decent chance that many of the measures will face legal challenges, and some aren’t necessarily even enforceable. And altogether, these bills will further fragment an already highly fractured regulatory landscape across the US. 

The situation is very messy and complex. But below the surface, there are some important arguments that will shape how tech is regulated in the US. Let me walk you through three of the most important debates. 

First, most of the bills deal with children’s rights to privacy online. However, while some seek to increase privacy protections, others eat away at them. And even when these bills are well-meaning, that doesn’t mean that they’re currently workable. California’s Age Appropriate Design Code, passed last August and due to come into force in July 2024, seeks to limit the collection of data from users under 18. It also tasks social media companies with assessing how they use kids’ personal data in content recommendation systems. The law requires websites to estimate users’ ages, which, though complex, is something that many platforms already do for advertising purposes. Social media companies do oppose the law and have already sued the state of California to challenge it for a variety of reasons. 

The Utah and Arkansas laws, on the other hand, require that social media companies actually confirm the age of all users, which involves creating completely new verification techniques and raises questions about privacy. Both laws have passed, but social media companies and privacy advocates are fighting back against them. They say the laws are unconstitutional, and it’s likely that this battle will end up in court. The Utah law further requires social media platforms to provide features for a parent or guardian to access the accounts and private messages of users under 18 years old. 

Secondly, the bills are sparking a debate around parental oversight. The Utah and Arkansas bills require under-18s to get parental consent before creating social media accounts.  The Utah law goes even further, requiring parents to give their consent for children to access social media from 10:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m., though it’s unclear how the law will be enforced when it is enacted in March of 2024. Research has shown that kids are able to easily get around existing age requirements online. And the extent of parental oversight ranges by state and age. A proposed Connecticut bill, for example, would force kids under 16 to get their parents’ consent to create a social media account.  

And lastly, the bills have major ramifications for young people’s speech rights and access to information. Some states impose explicit restrictions: in Texas, for example, one proposed child safety bill attempts to prohibit minors from accessing information that could lead to eating disorders. What exactly that sort of information may be remains unclear. But in most other states, the restrictions are even more vague, which could push social media companies to remove content out of concern for being sued, says Samir Jain, the vice president of policy at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a think tank based in Washington, DC. In other words, these laws could have a chilling effect on what people say and do online. 

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