Social media and children: a hot topic that has sparked a lot of debate lately. Impressionable and often lacking the lived experience to separate fact from fiction, children are more likely to fall prey to dangerous viral trends, cyberbullying, and online predators. Citing research that links social media use to anxiety and depression in kids, one US school district went as far as filing a lawsuit against TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and Snapchat, accusing them of *“exploiting the vulnerable brains of youth”* for profit. This is not to say that adults are completely immune to the negative effects of social media — we may also be scrolling late into the night and seeking validation online — but our mature brains are, at least physiologically, better equipped to emerge unscathed from online storms.
While social media can also benefit children in many ways, it has received mostly bad press lately, and the recent TikTok hearings in the US Congress did nothing to salvage its image. This, along with reports of a sharp rise in social media use among teens (kids aged 8-12) and teens, has brought the issue of social media regulation, and specifically the need for age verification, to the forefront of political debate.
One of the latest attempts to regulate children’s use of social media at the federal level is a new bill called the “Protecting Kids on Social Media Act.” It proposes the creation of a government-chaperoned social media age verification system that would be overseen by the head of the US Department of Commerce. Unlike existing “social media bills” that have been passed by individual states, such as Utah or Arkansas, the Protecting Kids on Social Media Act, if passed, will affect all Americans, regardless of where they live in the US or how old they are, and can seriously erode their privacy protections. Do the bill’s potential negative side effects outweigh the benefits? We think they do, but let’s look under its hood first.
Social Media Act: what’s in it, and will you be affected?
The Protecting Kids on Social Media Act was introduced to US Congress in late April by a group of Republican and Democratic lawmakers. If enacted, it would prohibit children under the age of 13 from having accounts on social media apps, require anyone between the ages of 13 and 18 to obtain parental consent to create a profile, and prevent platforms from recommending content to children based on their personal data. Though, it won’t stop social media apps from showing content or ads to minors “solely based on context” or on what they’re viewing.
While most social media platforms (including Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, YouTube) already list 13 as the minimum age for signing up, ostensibly to comply with the US Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), they do not enforce the age requirement in any way other than asking a person to state their age. The bill would require social media platforms to stop taking prospective users at their word and build in an age verification system that may or may not rely on people providing their government-issued IDs to websites.
A social media platform will be considered to have taken “reasonable steps” to verify a user’s age or their relationship to a parent or guardian if it “relies in good faith on the information provided by the Pilot Program,” it says. So what is that “pilot program”? The “pilot program” is the program that the Secretary of the US Department of Commerce has to launch within 2 years of the bill’s coming into force. But why exactly 2 years, you may ask. This is because after 2 years, all social media users will have to verify their age or face losing their accounts.
The pilot program will offer a free “secure digital identification credential to individuals who are citizens and lawful residents of the United States” that they can use to prove their age or their relationship with a minor (for a parent or a guardian). To receive it, they will need to upload copies of their official IDs or other papers, such as school IDs or a driver’s license. The bill says users will be able to control what data the pilot program shares with social media sites. For example, the pilot program may not share copies of the “underlying verification documents” with a social media site without the user’s consent.
There are still things to be ironed out as far as the bill’s enforcement goes, but it’s clear that it seeks to make the government an intermediary in the age verification process. The officials who will run the pilot program and have access to social media data must keep it secret, but as usual, some loopholes are carved out. For example, they are allowed to disclose it if there is a fraud investigation or a court order.
The bill gives some wiggle room to social media platforms and users, in saying that the enrollment into the nationwide verification system will be strictly “voluntary” both to individuals and the platforms. That means that social media sites can potentially come up with their own age verification methods. Either way, they will have to find a way to verify the age of their users or face hefty fines.
Implications for privacy: should you be worried?
No matter how a social media platform decides to verify your age, it will need to collect more of your personal information, from your birth certificate to your school records to biometrics. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s a private company contracted by the social media platform or a government agency doing the data processing. The bottom line is that this process exposes you to more privacy threats, such as potential data abuse, data leaks, and identity theft.
If the information linking one’s official documents to one’s social media identity becomes publicly available, either as a result of a hostile attack or willful misuse by rogue employees, the illusion of anonymity on social media will finally and irreversibly be buried. And if this sensitive personal information somehow finds its way into the hands of criminals, it can lead to financial loss or other serious consequences for account holders. For example, knowing a persons whereabouts from social media, bad actors could use the user’s personal information to open an account in their name while they are on vacation.
But not only that. In a scenario where the government inserts itself into the age verification process, it will be compiling a massive database of personal information, which it can tap into if it needs to. And while the “pilot program” is supposed to be a specific and limited tool that only verifies the user’s age and nothing else, such as their eligibility for benefits or legal status, there’s always a not so small chance that it will, in fact, be used for other purposes. At the very least, this (very tempting) opportunity will always be there.
The bill has already faced backlash from critics who doubt the government’s role in the process. Thus, Republican Senator Rand Paul slammed it as an overreach. “Parents exercise some oversight of what their kids view on the internet, what they view on television—all these things are important. I’m not sure that I want the federal government involved,” Paul said, according to The Wired.
It’s not all black and white…
Painting everything proposed by lawmakers black would be unfair. For example, a proposed ban on algorithmic recommendation systems for minors is a good thing. It can stop platforms from using children’s personal data to lure them into harmful content, and let children themselves choose what content they want to see, rather than having to consume what algorithms impose on them. A study a few years ago claimed that Instagram’s algorithms, for instance, were pushing weight-loss content to teenagers, some as young as 14, after they ‘briefly’ looked at fitness-related images. While Meta has dismissed the study’s methodology as “flawed,” if the bill is passed, it should make the chances of this happening less likely.
As for the age verification portion of the bill, we are not alone in our criticism. Several children’s advocacy groups issued a joint statement saying that the bill could harm the privacy of all users, both adults and minors, by requiring covered companies to verify their ages. They added that there is currently no agreed-upon way to do this without violating users’ privacy rights. You can read their full statement here.
A fair trade-off?
Unlike age verification laws that restrict social media use for minors passed by individual states, a federal bill to the same effect will impact a larger number of people, and may drastically change how they navigate their online lives. Social media, despite popular opinion, is not just a way to have fun, but also to engage in civic issues and find a sense of community. According to a 2022 Pew Research Center study half of US adults get their news from social media at least sometime, and 35% of teens say they are on social media “almost constantly”. How many of them will lose access to social media, either because they lack parental consent or because they are unwilling to share their IDs and link their social media accounts to them?
It remains to be seen whether this bill will make it any further up the legislative ladder, but the trend is clear — users should brace themselves for an avalanche of age verification laws that risk eroding their privacy in the name of protecting the children. But while those who really want to get around the restrictions are likely to do so — for example, by using a VPN service that shows you’re connecting to a social media site from another country — disadvantaged youth, as well as privacy-conscious adults, risk being thrown under the bus.
This trade-off seems unfair for keeping children safe (who might be more tech-savvy than their parents and able to bypass the restrictions anyway). We should consider other options to protect kids: besides using the existing privacy settings and parental controls, we need to teach children how to use social media safely and urge social media to self-regulate and follow best practices that would benefit not only children’s well-being and privacy, but also that of adults.