Apologies. I am late in writing about this just-passed social media legislation in the state where I live, Utah (have to say my home state is Massachusetts). I’m late partly because I’ve been in denial. I can’t believe that laws so disrespectful of teens’ rights of privacy and participation could go on the books. And I can’t believe that lawmakers of my generation – some of whom are loving grandparents, I’m sure – believe the only way to protect people under 18 in today’s media environment is to ban them from it. I mean, US lawmakers tried that way back in 2006 with the failed “Delete Online Predators Act,” which was really about deleting teens, not “predators,” from social network sites.
Then again, I can believe this, because 1) I believe the platforms’ responses to the youth mental health crisis and growing public discontent with social media have been too slow, not substantive enough and not collaborative enough, and 2) because I don’t believe lawmakers at either state or federal levels understand social media, the technologies behind it, or adolescent development enough to write good laws (yet, I hope). I’ve spent too many hours watching congressional hearings to be able to believe anything else.
I agree with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) that federal privacy law for Internet users of all ages needs to be passed first* – law that honors the data minimization principle, including with regard to age authentication (which this Utah law does not), addresses all the data brokers that traffic in our data, and defines and provides penalties for all businesses’ misuse of our data, from advertisers to brokers to platforms. I think Senator Wyden, as co-author of Section 230, does actually understand the technology.
I also agree with Fight for the Future‘s Evan Greer, who told Vox for its article about the Utah legislation that, instead of passing legislation that weakens kids’ online safety and security, federal and state lawmakers should look at design practices and things like “the use of personal data for algorithmic recommendations.” I’ve been talking with a student activist at University of North Carolina whose group has helped write smart state legislation that does factor in social media’s impacts on minors’ data privacy and algorithmic recommendation; I know there is a chance for good state legislation, if young people’s expertise is part of the mix in drafting it.
What else do I struggle with about Utah HB311 and SB152?
- Assume that all children have engaged parents/guardians who share the values of the lawmakers who wrote and voted for it. What about homeless youth, youth dealing with abusive parents, or LGBTQ+ youth whose parents aren’t there for them or want to “fix” them in ways that traumatize them?
- Assume that what parents believe is best for their children always, in every case, is – an impossible generalization, especially at a time and in a media environment where experiences are highly individual and contextual. A law based on this assumption could end up supporting abusive parents who use it to monitor and punish children who use social media to get help.
- In requiring platforms to make all minor data available to a minor’s parents, assume that no one under 18 has a need for privacy, including from their parents, though privacy is necessary to healthy adolescent development.
- Assume that banning DMs (direct messaging, or 1:1 messaging) from platforms will keep youth from engaging in 1:1 communication on platforms that cannot be monitored such as WhatsApp, Signal and others with end-to-end encryption.
- Do not demonstrate an understanding that, so far, a lot of age verification systems require more data from children than platforms require now, not less, as well as data from adults to verify that they are not children, putting everybody’s privacy and data security at great risk.
- Do not factor in the research finding that some parents believe their kids don’t need laws like this to stay safe and thus help their kids set up “under-age” accounts, so the law in effect can force otherwise perfectly law-abiding parents to break the law.
- Seem to have wholly excluded young people as experts on their own lived experience with social media from the drafting of this legislation, although researchers acknowledge young people’s expertise on their own social media experiences, and although there is a nearly universally ratified convention on children’s rights that requires policymakers at every level to consult with youth on policymaking that concerns them (Article 12 of the UNCRC).
- Lock in the online safety “control paradigm” that scholars in a number of countries have been cautioning against for years – and pave the way for more state and federal lawmakers to lock it down even further, thus teaching children that control and surveillance is how we keep people safe. Is that what we want our children to believe?
- Could actually contribute to the youth mental health crisis by further reducing young people’s agency, according to other scholars, who write (in a book soon to be published by the American Psychiatric Association): “High agency and positive mindsets [about their media] are positively associated with well-being. When youth saw themselves as in control of their social media use, they not only reported greater life satisfaction and perceived social support but also less depression, anxiety, and stress.” See also this from the World Health Organization.
Never mind that this legislation fails to acknowledge how mature and thoughtful many people under 18 are – more mature than a whole lot of people of my generation! I simply cannot believe some youth advocates applaud this approach and apparently believe that this is what it takes to protect online kids and teens.
This is what we’ve come to – the kind of policymaking that disregards whole swaths of the youth population and disrespects so many marginalized youth, their lived experience, needs and expertise? Certainly policymakers of my generation are demonstrating that they want Internet companies to listen to youth in designing products that will affect their wellbeing. Will the policymakers themselves listen to youth, thoughtfully, sincerely, with the intent to learn – young people representative of the full population, not of the dominant culture, not hand-picked by adults, not telling people with power over them what they think the powerful want to hear? Youth deserve to be heard, and they deserve better than legislation like this.
*I heard this was Senator Wyden’s position from a member of his staff speaking at a Family Online Safety Institute event earlier this month.
- Here‘s the great coverage of all this from Vox, including what’s in the works like this in other states
- Here are the two parts of the Utah legislation: HB311 and SB152
- Scholarship on youth views: “Good Social Media?”: Underrepresented Youth Perspectives on the Ethical and Equitable Design of Social Media Platforms“; about the new book Behind Their Screens and why we need to partner with teens, not dictate to them (this scholarly book too); about an important 2022 study on what family practices support youth digital wellbeing
- “Agency & Resilience: Foundational elements of adolescent wellbeing,” from the World Health Organization
- Real intelligence from 11-14 year-olds: “‘Listen to Us’: What These 12 Kids Want Adults to Know” in the New York Times
- Did the Utah lawmakers – or will those in other states – consider this important question that few have asked, “What if Kids Are Sad and Stressed Because Their Parents Are?,” from New York Times columnist David French?
- “A simple exercise for digital parenting from me