NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn says over the past couple of years moms have told her it’s hard to protect their children from online dangers.
“I had another mom in Tennessee tell me, ‘You know Marsha, I used to think that when I had the kids inside the house at night and the doors were locked that they were safe,'” Sen. Blackburn recalled. “And then she said during the pandemic she realized that it is the device in their pocket where they are getting a lot of harm.”
According to a survey from Pew Research, nearly half of U.S. teens say they have been bullied or harassed online.
To keep kids safer while they are on their phones or computers, Blackburn and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) wrote a bipartisan bill they say would keep kids safer online.
The Kids Online Safety Act of 2022 would provide safeguards for people ages 16 and younger on an electronic, online service that “is reasonably likely to be used by a minor”.
The bill requires these platforms to give minors and parents control against stalking, exploitation, addiction or exposure to “dangerous” materials and requires platforms to default to the strictest settings.
For example, the bill would have social media sites limit video auto-play, notifications or rewards for spending more time online.
The bill would also give parents more ways to oversee kids’ online activities and require these websites to allow researchers access to their data sets to look into the safety and well-being of minors online.
“It requires transparency and accountability from these tech platforms. It would require them to conduct age verification. It would require them to make their data sets available and prohibit them from tracking and monitoring and sharing the data on these children and it would give parents the toolbox they need to help keep their children safe online,” Blackburn summarized.
However, while experts in tech and online safety support some aspects of the bill, like the increased access to data, they fear this bill encourages a more restrictive approach to keeping kids away from harmful content.
“I really think we need to get away from the constant debate of whether social media is detrimental or beneficial to mental health and wellbeing of our youth,” Vanderbilt Associate Professor of Computer Science Pamela Wisniewski said. “That doesn’t do anything for any of our youth and social media is not going away.”
She explained there is always a trade-off between safety and privacy when talking about regulating technology companies and fears that more safety regulations will push kids to more dangerous parts of the internet in search of privacy.
“Instead of parental controls which kind of put a parent in a power role, is there a way we can build more collaborative technology so we can teach them to be better digital citizens,” Wisniewski asked.
She said often times parents are only seeing content their kids want them to see and aren’t aware of what they may be doing on other platforms, which are often encrypted, private and or anonymous.
“But what we know about anonymous and private platforms is they can also breed abusive behaviors,” she said.
In her research, Wisniewski has found that social media can be a source of harm for children but also help them build friendships and feel connected.
“We are learning that teens often joke about self-harm among their friends [and] they get sugar baby requests all the time. And they also use the platform for positive things. We see a number of LGBTQ teens using private messaging platforms to get the support they need that they might not be getting at home,” she said.
Another study from Pew Research backs up that finding. According to Pew, a majority of teens say social media gives them a place to be creative and make new connections.
Human rights and LGBTQ advocacy groups oppose The Kids Online Safety Act because they fear it would allow platforms to use “invasive filtering and monitoring tools,” which would hurt minors’ ability to access important information. In a letter to senators, these groups reference efforts to restrict teens and children from being able to check out library books with information about sex or with LGBTQ resources.
While the bill did not pass by the end of 2022 as Blackburn and Blumenthal hoped, Blumenthal has promised he will continue to fight for it in 2023.