Protecting Kids Online
The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) governs how social media companies engage the nation’s children, but it was written in 1998, before social media existed.
American teens are afflicted by a profound mental health crisis, and smartphones and social media are the principal culprit.
Social media companies monopolize the attention of teen users by addicting them. Addiction is the cornerstone of their business model, because it primes teens—to whom access is granted to third parties for a fee—to be receptive to graphic advertisements and prompts them to constantly generate data about themselves, making the advertisements more effective. A booming market exists for the data as well. Big Tech knows what it is doing and will fight to keep doing it.
But screen addiction keeps teens from family, friends, neighbors, and other community figures; it supplants team sports, exercise, good sleeping habits, life outdoors, and time for public service. Social media floods teens with dispiriting content that erodes their appreciation for their common inheritance, and promotes the most toxic forms of social engagement with peers. Properly understood, this addiction is not an individualized, isolable phenomenon—it is a generalized public crisis that casts a long shadow over America’s future. The question for lawmakers is what must be done?
Breaking the addiction is the policy objective. There are four complementary strategies for doing so: First, restore parental authority; second, limit teens’ contact with social media to the extent possible; third, reduce the potency of the platforms; and fourth, hold Big Tech accountable for its failures to protect minors.
Parents want legislators to act. According to a survey of more than 2,500 adult-aged Americans by YouGov on behalf of the Institute for Family Studies and the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC), 80% of parents support requiring parental permission before a minor opens a social media account and 77% support giving parents administrator-level access to what kids see and do online. These measures were supported by parents across the political spectrum.
Two laws recently passed in Utah to limit teen social media use, known together as the Social Media Regulation Act (SMRA), provide a good model for how to accomplish the above four strategies. The SMRA was signed into law in March 2023 and takes effect on March 1, 2024. It is replicable at the federal level.
What does the SMRA do? It:
- Requires social media companies to verify the age of Utah residents who are opening or operating a social media account;
- Requires social media companies to obtain the explicit consent of a parent or guardian for a child under the age of 18 to open and operate a social media account;
- Prohibits social media companies from allowing a minor to open an account if he or she does not receive parental consent;
- Gives parents who have granted such permission unrestricted access to the minor’s account;
- Requires that a minor’s account not appear in search results, not be targeted for advertising, not have user data and personal information collected or shared, and not be addressed via direct messaging by adults;
- Prohibits social media companies from, intentionally or unintentionally, using a platform design that addicts minors;
- Requires social media companies to automatically lock minors’ accounts between 10:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m. to free them for essential sleep;
- Provides parents the right to sue on behalf of their teens, with the burden of proof shifted to social media companies to prove that harm has not been done; and
- Directs Utah’s Division of Consumer Protections to levy fines against social media companies for violations.
The SMRA will be challenged in court, and it still awaits interpretation from Utah’s Department of Commerce, which is charged with implementation. How, for instance, does Utah define a “design” that causes the addiction of a minor? What are the permissible mechanisms for age verification? And how large will the fines levied by the Division of Consumer Protections be?
Nonetheless, the above, if properly implemented, will provide a powerful solution. The SMRA is anchored in giving parents more authority over the social media activity of their children. This is important for several reasons. First, if the objective is breaking the addiction of teens, placing the problem in the context of family is the best remedy. Second, it connects well with the conservative focus on giving parents greater authority over the lives of their children against institutions that have encroached on the parental domain. The school choice movement and the SMRA are parallel expressions of the re-assertion of the family. Parents, beyond any others, are most likely to fight for their kids. Third, it deflects criticism from libertarians that this is state overreach. These laws restore power to civil society, rather than undermine it.
The SMRA also improves upon COPPA in critical ways. As Adam Candeub (Michigan State University), Clare Morell (EPPC) and others have persuasively argued, COPPA fails to accomplish its basic objective: protecting teens. Its regulations were conceived under the dated assumption that the Internet is a purely benign, non-invasive force. This has proven to be spectacularly wrong. So, COPPA does effectively nothing to stop Big Tech from gathering data on minors; it defines a minor as being 13 years old or younger, giving social media companies license to addict the lion’s share of American teens; and they systematically admit children under the age of 13 onto their platforms anyway, because no serious repercussions force them to stop. The pecuniary rewards for addicting minors far outweigh the potential punishments. Legislation modeled after the SMRA, if buttressed by serious penalties, would correct these issues.
Such legislation will receive fierce pushback. Big Tech will lobby against age verification on the grounds that the task is too difficult or will require the gathering of too much information. Then the same companies will likely push for biometric verification that would be far too invasive of personal privacy. This is a false choice. Age verification can be effective, and this trap can be avoided.
A vocal and radical contingent will also use the issue to argue for the autonomy of teenagers and the need to “protect” them from parents. Washington Post columnist Paul Waldman recently claimed, for instance, that the SMRA’s measures give parents the power to “spy” on their children. Conservatives should welcome this fight. Compared with bombardment by online "influencers,” nudging by corporate algorithms, and the commodification of “friendship” and “identity”—all for the purpose of enriching Silicon Valley—family is the vastly superior medium for the self-development of young people. There is simply no equivalence between the avaricious eyes of Big Tech and the loving gaze of a mother and father.