Ernest Hemingway once said that for a good speech, “[a]ll you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.”
English actress Kate Winslet’s acceptance speech at the 2023 British Academy of Film and Television Arts Television Awards accomplished just that. Winslet won the award for leading actress for her role in “I Am Ruth”—a series about the hardships of raising children in the digital age. Her address gave the audience an honest account of how technology has created a divide between parents and their children.
But what made her speech true came in the form of a single admonition directed at Big Tech: “We want our children back.”
She was not speaking as an award-winning actress at that moment, but as a mother to three children. As each day goes by, many parents are attempting to navigate the perilous experiment tech companies are conducting on our children.
Social media and other tech services, for example, have been linked to depression, anxiety, isolation, and suicide in children and teens. Even Meta’s (the parent company of Facebook) own studies found that its products are toxic to young users, particularly teenage girls.
Worse, these platforms are highly addictive—and deliberately so. As Dr. Christine Stabler at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine put it, “Social media apps and websites have the same kind of effect on the brain as playing a slot machine.”
Furthermore, a 2023 University of North Carolina study found that social media use can legitimately rewire the brains of children as young as 12 years old.
Sadly, the U.S. has done very little to curtail the harm tech companies cause to our children. Yes, we have some child privacy laws on the books. But they don’t do much.
For instance, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act is primarily targeted at protecting the personal information of children under 13 online. It requires disclaimers, limits targeted advertising, and pushes websites to get parental consent before kids can sign up. But it doesn’t do anything to protect children from harms to their mental, and even physical, well-being once they are online.
And even when it openly flouts these laws, Big Tech gets a slap on the wrist.
In early 2019, the Federal Trade Commission fined Musical.ly (now TikTok) $5.7 million for illegally collecting personal information from children. Later that year, the commission leveled the same charge against Google and YouTube with a $170 million penalty.
Given that TikTok’s market capitalization is estimated to exceed $140 billion and Google’s annual revenues exceed $180 billion, these fines are hardly a deterrent. To Big Tech companies, fines for breaking the law are just a cost of doing business.
At its core, the issue is that these companies are fully aware of the pernicious impact of their products on children and teens, yet they continue to redouble their efforts to ensnare the next generation. This takes the form of Meta’s creation of a team to study and create products for preteens, Twitter hiring online influencers to recruit young people, and TikTok targeting teens with addictive content. These willful predations in the face of mounting evidence of these companies’ destructive effects should push lawmakers to take action.
Thankfully, Congress has solutions in play to give more rights to parents. And they are bipartisan. Sens. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., reintroduced the Kids Online Safety Act this month.
The act would allow the FTC and states’ attorneys general offices to go after tech platforms that fail to provide parents with options to protect their child’s information, disable addictive product features, and opt out of algorithmic recommendations. It also creates a “duty of care” for social media platforms to prevent and mitigate harms to minors, such as content that promotes self-harm, suicide, eating disorders, substance abuse, and sexual exploitation.
All this is good news for parents, 77% of whom favor having administrator-level access to what their kids see online provided to them by tech companies.
Yet still, some have called the wisdom of the bill into question. They make two general claims. The first is that the Kids Online Safety Act would cover video-streaming companies, such as Netflix, which they believe adds inappropriate liability for these companies given the lack of user-generated content on their platforms.
But there’s nothing in the text of the bill that suggests streaming companies should be doing something more than what they are already doing. Opponents of the bill even outright state that streaming companies currently vet their content.
So, their argument raises the question: Are streaming companies actually vetting their content to protect children?
If they are, then streaming companies could push for the bill to add a “safe harbor” for companies that choose to adopt a widely accepted rating system, similar to studios adopting the Motion Picture Association’s movie ratings (e.g., R, PG-13, etc.) or gaming companies adopting the Entertainment Software Rating Board’s game ratings (e.g., M for Mature, etc.)
At this point, no streaming company has lodged a formal attack on the bill or asked for such a safe harbor to be added, so, the assumption is that they do not appear to be as worried about the legislation as the bill’s opponents suggest.
The other claim is that the act will contribute to more conservative voices being silenced. This thinking is even more peculiar. Folks would be hard pressed when arguing that conservative outlets, like The Daily Wire or TheBlaze, “promote … suicide, eating disorders, substance abuse, sexual exploitation” or encourage minors to take narcotics, ingest tobacco products, gamble, or consume alcohol.
Most conservative outlets, given their ideological stances, promote content that advances the prevention of these behaviors—particularly for children. It is unclear how advocates of this line of thinking square the circle here when, in fact, the act would have the opposite effect of what the bill’s naysayers claim.
The time for dithering is over. We want our children back. The Kids Online Safety Act can help.
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