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Why child safety bills are popping up all over the US

They’re shaping consequential policies around privacy, parental rights, and speech in the US.

baby on a laptop with glitch effect
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Bills ostensibly aimed at making the internet safer for children and teens have been popping up all over the United States recently. Dozens of bills in states including Utah, Arkansas, Texas, Maryland, Connecticut, and New York have been introduced in the last few months. They are at least partly a response to concerns, especially among parents, over the potentially negative impact of social media on kids’ mental health.

However, the content of these bills varies drastically from state to state. While some aim to protect privacy, others risk eroding it. Some could have a chilling effect on free speech online. There’s a decent chance that many of the measures will face legal challenges, and some aren’t necessarily even enforceable. And altogether, these bills will further fragment an already highly fractured regulatory landscape across the US. 

The situation is very messy and complex. But below the surface, there are some important arguments that will shape how tech is regulated in the US. Let me walk you through three of the most important debates. 

First, most of the bills deal with children’s rights to privacy online. However, while some seek to increase privacy protections, others eat away at them. And even when these bills are well-meaning, that doesn’t mean that they’re currently workable. California’s Age Appropriate Design Code, passed last August and due to come into force in July 2024, seeks to limit the collection of data from users under 18. It also tasks social media companies with assessing how they use kids’ personal data in content recommendation systems. The law requires websites to estimate users’ ages, which, though complex, is something that many platforms already do for advertising purposes. Social media companies do oppose the law and have already sued the state of California to challenge it for a variety of reasons. 

The Utah and Arkansas laws, on the other hand, require that social media companies actually confirm the age of all users, which involves creating completely new verification techniques and raises questions about privacy. Both laws have passed, but social media companies and privacy advocates are fighting back against them. They say the laws are unconstitutional, and it’s likely that this battle will end up in court. The Utah law further requires social media platforms to provide features for a parent or guardian to access the accounts and private messages of users under 18 years old. 

Secondly, the bills are sparking a debate around parental oversight. The Utah and Arkansas bills require under-18s to get parental consent before creating social media accounts.  The Utah law goes even further, requiring parents to give their consent for children to access social media from 10:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m., though it’s unclear how the law will be enforced when it is enacted in March of 2024. Research has shown that kids are able to easily get around existing age requirements online. And the extent of parental oversight ranges by state and age. A proposed Connecticut bill, for example, would force kids under 16 to get their parents’ consent to create a social media account.  

And lastly, the bills have major ramifications for young people’s speech rights and access to information. Some states impose explicit restrictions: in Texas, for example, one proposed child safety bill attempts to prohibit minors from accessing information that could lead to eating disorders. What exactly that sort of information may be remains unclear. But in most other states, the restrictions are even more vague, which could push social media companies to remove content out of concern for being sued, says Samir Jain, the vice president of policy at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a think tank based in Washington, DC. In other words, these laws could have a chilling effect on what people say and do online. 

What’s next?

Many of these bills are already being challenged by Big Tech lobbyists, activists, and other groups. They will argue that enforcement is extremely onerous, and in some cases even technically impossible. For example, all this legislation depends on verifying the ages of users online, which is hugely difficult and presents new privacy risks. Do we really want to provide driver’s license information to Meta, for example?

The laws also expose the lack of federal protections for everyone’s security, privacy, and freedoms online, regardless of age, says Bailey Sanchez, policy counsel at the Future of Privacy Forum, another DC-based think tank. (Current federal laws prohibit websites from collecting data on users under the age of 13.)

“Someday that 17-year-old is going to turn 18, and unless they’re in a handful of states, there is no privacy law that applies to them,” she says. 

What I am reading this week

  • It was a big week in layoffs for tech and media, with Disney, Meta, and Insider each cutting thousands of jobs. A few months ago, Derek Thompson wrote a nice explainer in the Atlantic about why these cutbacks are happening: it’s likely the result of a combination of factors related to the post-pandemic economy, a slowdown in advertising, and overhiring.    
  • ChatGPT could be banned in the EU over the way it was trained on people’s personal data. My colleague Melissa Heikkilä wrote a great piece explaining why OpenAI is going to struggle to resolve the situation. As governments seek to address the onslaught of generative AI products, some officials are even calling for the identification of developers
  • Apple’s been accused of stealing ideas from smaller companies under the guise of a future partnership, reports Aaron Tilley of the Wall Street Journal in this meaty feature
  • Sadly, BuzzFeed News was shuttered on April 20 after over 10 years as one of the most influential outlets reporting on the internet and politics. Here’s a lovely letter that Charlie Warzel wrote in the Atlantic about the end of the BuzzFeed era of the internet. 

What I learned this week

Slacktivism—low-effort participation in politics online—gets a bad rap. But it might not be all that fruitless, according to a new study from Linnaeus University in Sweden. The research examined which factors cause someone to sign an online petition. It found that sharing information on social media, even casually, was the most important recruitment channel for new signatories. “​​Even if some people, who share political information on the Internet, don’t engage in traditional political activities (such as petition signing), simply by retweeting, they serve as the recruiters into these activities,” the authors wrote. So perhaps all your posting about climate change really is making a bit of a difference. 

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