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Child online safety laws will actually hurt kids, critics say

At the same time, we’ve also seen many states pick up (and politicize) laws about online safety for kids in recent months. These policies vary quite a bit from state to state, as I wrote back in April. Some focus on children’s data, and others try to limit how much and when kids can get online. 

Supporters say these laws are necessary to mitigate the risks that big tech companies pose to young people—risks that are increasingly well documented. They say it’s well past time to put guardrails in place and limit the collecting and selling of minors’ data.

“What we’re doing here is creating a duty of care that makes the social media platforms accountable for the harms they’ve caused,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, who is co-sponsoring a child online safety bill in the Senate, in an interview with Slate. “It gives attorneys general and the FTC the power to bring lawsuits based on the product designs that, in effect, drive eating disorders, bullying, suicide, and sex and drug abuse that kids haven’t requested and that can be addictive.”

But—surprise, surprise—as with most things, it’s not really that simple. There are also vocal critics who argue that child safety laws are actually harmful to kids because all these laws, no matter their shape, have to contend with a central tension: in order to implement laws that apply to kids online, companies need to actually identify which users are kids—which requires the collection or estimation of sensitive personal information. 

I was thinking about this when the prominent New York–based civil society organization S.T.O.P. (which stands for the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project) released a report on September 28 that highlights some of these potential harms and makes the case that all bills requiring tech companies to identify underage users, even if well intentioned, will increase online surveillance for everyone. 

“These bills are sold as a way to protect teens, but they do just the opposite,” S.T.O.P. executive director Albert Fox Cahn said in a press release. “Rather than misguided efforts to track every user’s age and identity, we need privacy protections for every American.”  

There’s a wide range of regulations out there, but the report calls out several states that are creating laws imposing stricter—even drastic—restrictions on minors’ internet access, effectively limiting online speech. 

A Utah law that will take effect in March 2024, for instance, will require that parents give consent for their kids to access social media outside the hours of 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., and that social media companies build features enabling parents to access their kids’ accounts. 

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