Online child safety laws could help or hurt – 2 pediatricians explain what’s likely to work and what isn’t

Society has a complicated relationship with adolescents. We want to protect them as children and yet launch them into adulthood. Adolescents face risks from testing out independence, navigating peer relationships, developing an identity and making mistakes in these processes.

Today’s teens have new areas of risk and opportunity as they navigate the digital world, and this has led to debate over their social media use.

Concern about social media use by 13- to 17-year-olds has led to a patchwork of state initiatives as well as proposed federal legislation. Following the Surgeon General’s Advisory on Social Media and Youth Mental Health, issued on May 23, 2023, the Biden administration convened the Kids Online Health and Safety Task Force.

We are pediatricians who study child online behavior, and we are co-directors of the American Academy of Pediatrics Center of Excellence on Social Media and Youth Mental Health.

As we consider the role of the federal government in regulating teen social media use, we believe it is important to consider how to support adolescents’ drive for independence and social interactions, while protecting them from serious harm or having their identities commodified by powerful technology companies.

Without commenting on any specific piece of active legislation, here are the elements of any potential policy related to children and technology that we believe would be helpful, and those we are concerned could be harmful.

Ideal legislation

Key to any effective online child safety legislation is accountability, so that platforms are designed with the needs of children and adolescents in mind, rather than being driven by engagement and revenue goals.

Default privacy protections are also crucial. Young people often receive – and don’t want – contact from unknown adults. These are typically marketers or random strangers, dubbed “randos.” Teens often teach each other ways to try to be safe, leading to widespread practices that may or may not be effective.

Methods for stopping online child sexual exploitation are not adequate, and elements of proposed legislation could help by limiting who can contact teens outside of their known social circles. Making young users’ accounts private by default would allow them to have online interactions just with friends and communities they seek out. Encouraging collaboration among technology platforms to flag social media users who pose a threat and identify problematic practices is also crucial.

Another helpful element of child online safety legislation is requiring better access to and control over platform settings. One challenge for social media users of all ages is to find and navigate the different available settings. These could be standardized to be readily accessible rather than requiring multiple clicks to find protections buried in an app’s settings. Young people describe wanting more control in their platform use, including the ability to control…

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