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U.S. House Speaker McCarthy removed in historic vote

Senators push for social media restrictions for minors

Social media apps
Photo by WAMC
Social media apps on a smartphone

A bipartisan group of U.S. Senators has introduced a bill that would restrict young people from accessing social media. It comes amid a larger debate over the impact of social media on mental health and national security.

Last week, the bipartisan coalition held a press conference to say it was standing behind a bill that would keep users younger than 13 off social media and require a parent’s permission for those between the ages of 13 and 17.

Democrat Brian Schatz of Hawaii said the legislation would also affect how social media apps suggest content for minors.

“In that 13 to 17 age bracket, it bans algorithmic boosting that uses personal data to feed your content. 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. It's not a stretch to say these companies have a near obligation to upset an entire generation of children on a persistent basis,” said Schatz.

Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy said he sees the effects of algorithms that churn out suggested content on his own kids.

“I've seen both my children be subjected to these algorithms that are intent on addicting them to their screens, and pulling them away from much more fulfilling and meaningful connection,” said Murphy.

Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton said his constituents want an effective age verification system – another key part of the legislation. He responded when the Senators were asked if the system could open the door to tech companies obtaining sensitive information.

“I got to tell you if you're worried about anyone having your birthdate let me caution you what social media already has about you. I've seen several of you during this press conference, tapping away at your phones, I bet you might have been putting up posts on Twitter, other social media accounts, you know, they're following what you're writing. They can predict in the future what you might write based on what you've been tapping. If you click on one account, they can predict and therefore send you to other accounts that are like that. You click on a video to watch it. They'll know how long you watch that video and what it says about your user habits. These are the kinds of practices that we want to stop for America's youth,” said Cotton.

Another recent piece of legislation introduced by a separate group of Senators, including Connecticut’s Richard Blumenthal, is called the Kids Online Safety Act. It would require social media platforms to provide those under 18 with options to protect private information, disable addictive product features and opt out of algorithmic recommendations. The Senators believe the constant stream of targeted content has a harmful effect on the mental health of young people.

The legislation comes after the CEO of TikTok was grilled by the House Energy and Commerce Committee in March. TikTok, which claims more than 150 million American users, is a product of Chinese parent company ByteDance.

In this exchange, New York Democrat Paul Tonko of the 20th District tells CEO Shou Zi Chew the platform “systematically exploits users’ anxieties by pushing alarming and distressing content.”

“For example, in May of 2022, the LA Times found that some pregnant users searching for information about their pregnancies on Tik Tok were then shown information about miscarriages, stillbirths and delivery room traumas,” said Tonko. “Your company knows that distressing content can have the perverse effect of feeding user engagement. And for TikTok engagement means money. In the course of a week, what percentage of content that a user sees is considered potentially harmful, or distressing content?”

“Congressman, we work with a lot of experts on this, even before we set the 60-minute time limit for under 18’s, if you spend too much time on our platform – you can try it – if you spend too much time, we will actually send you videos to tell you to go out and get some air and get off the pla…”

“…What percentage of content that a user sees is considered potentially harmful?”

“I will need to follow up with my team and get back to you on that.”

There’s also a push to ban TikTok entirely, with national security concerns coming from members of Congress and the Biden Administration. The RESTRICT Act would give the Commerce Department the ability to block transactions with entities it deems a security threat.

Benjamin Yankson, a professor at the University at Albany’s College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity, said because TikTok is held by a foreign company, it doesn’t face the same rules regarding privacy as social media companies based in the U.S.

“For any government entity to get any data from there, they have to go through the proper court processes that allowed them to really come in and investigate or get access to data. With TikTok, what the fear is is that that is not the case,” said Yankson.

Yankson says controlling social media is a complicated issue. As for new age restrictions and parental consent laws, Yankson said there’s a bigger problem.

“What they need to find out is how do you actually enforce the bill itself?” said Yankson.

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.