In the future, when teens want to sign up for a Facebook or Instagram account, they may first need to ask their parent or guardian to give their consent to social media companies.
At least that’s the vision of a growing number of states enacting—and in some cases enacting—legislation to protect children online.
For years, US lawmakers have called for new precautions to address the problems that social platforms are taking young users down harmful rabbit holes, allowing new forms of bullying and harassment and exacerbating what has been described as a teen mental health crisis.
Now, in the absence of federal legislation, states are taking action and sounding the alarm in the process. The governors of Arkansas and Utah recently signed controversial bills that would require social media to perform age verification for all state residents and obtain the consent of minors’ guardians before they join the platform. Connecticut and Ohio legislators are also working to pass similar legislation.
On the face of it, the creation of additional barriers for teens is a step forward that some parents may welcome after years of worrying about the potential harm children face on social media. But some users, digital rights advocates and child safety experts say the wave of new state legislation risks undermining the privacy of teens and adults, places too much of a burden on parents and raises serious enforcement questions.
Jason Kelly, deputy director of digital strategy for the non-profit digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, told CNN he was concerned about government interference when “the state tells families how to raise their children” and said it could “trample the rights of every citizen” . ”
“Requiring people to get government approval to share their personal identity before accessing social media would harm everyone’s ability to speak up and share information, regardless of their age,” he added. “Young people should not be used as pawns in the fight against big technology, and we are disappointed that first Utah and now Arkansas have such overly broad laws.”
Parents have long been worried about the privacy risks to their children using social media, but state law is raising a new set of privacy concerns, experts say.
For example, in Arkansas, the law will rely on third-party companies to verify all users’ personal information, such as a driver’s license or photo ID. (The legislation in Arkansas also contained many loopholes and exceptions, benefiting companies such as Google and presumably its subsidiary YouTube, who lobbied for the bill.)
The impact on privacy is even stronger for teenagers in some of these states. Utah law, for example, not only requires parental consent, but also gives parents access to “content and interaction” in their teen accounts.
Albert Fox Kahn, founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project and fellow at New York University Law School, said the bills are problematic because users in those states will no longer remain anonymous, which could result in fewer people all ages will express their opinion. themselves and look for information on the Internet.
He believes that teens in the LGBTQ+ community will suffer the most if they are potentially “opened up to homophobic or transphobic parents and cut off from their digital community.”
Lucy Ivey, an 18-year-old TikTok influencer who attends the University of Utah Valley, echoed those concerns.
“With a new law like this, they may now be intimidated and discouraged by the legal hoops required to use social media out of fear of the authorities or their parents, or out of fear of losing their privacy at a time when teenagers find out what are they. ,” Ivey told CNN as the Utah law was passed.
Devorah Heitner, author of Screenwise, Speaker: Raising Kids in the Digital Age, argues that teens need to learn how to function in online communities because it is expected from both college admissions and their professional lives.
“Keeping them in online communities until, in some cases, they’ve completed their first year of college but can still have a job or drive a car, that’s behind the times if they don’t even have an Instagram or Discord account.” where their mom doesn’t read every message.”
Instead, in her opinion, teenagers need to improve their digital literacy in schools with a high socio-emotional component.
“Literacy should not only be about “not watching pornography”, “staying away from bad sites” or “not bullying on the Internet”; it’s so limited,” she said. “It also needs to be an understanding of how the algorithms work, how teenagers might react, or what to do when they feel excluded or feel insecure. We must help the children in all this.”
Heitner also said the bills should be about making companies more accountable, not about passing the money on to parents so they either don’t let teens on the platforms or feel constantly pressured by the police or oversight of their activities. .
“Not all parents are passionate, kind and supportive of their children, and even those who don’t have the opportunity or time to deal with the 24/7 nature of social media,” Heitner said. “It’s an unfair burden.”
Given that the bills are unprecedented, it’s unclear exactly how social media companies will adapt and enforce them.
Michael Inoue, an analyst at ABI Research, said that minors can “steal” personal data – from family members who don’t use social media, for example – to create accounts they can access and use without supervision. VPNs can also make it harder to map IP addresses to user states, he says.
Facebook parent Meta previously told CNN that it has the same goals as parents and politicians, but the company said it also wants young people to have a safe and positive online experience and keep their platforms accessible. It did not say how this would comply with the law.
In a statement provided to CNN, a TikTok spokesperson said the company is “committed to providing a safe and secure platform that supports teens’ well-being and provides parents with the tools and controls to navigate digitally safely.” Snap representatives did not respond to a request for comment.
But even if the legislative moves by Utah, Arkansas and other states turn out to be wrong, Inoue says that “these first efforts at least draw attention to these problems.”
Heitner said she is most encouraged by the small but growing number of school districts and families, as well as one Pennsylvania district, that have filed lawsuits against social media companies for their alleged impact on teen mental health. “These efforts are more productive than leaving it to the parents,” she said.
The Arkansas law is expected to go into effect in September, while the Utah bill is expected to be implemented next year. But bills like these could “face years of litigation and injunctions before they go into effect,” Kahn said.
“I hope Congress takes action before then to provide real protection for all Americans,” he said.