Prodded by fed up parents, some in Congress try to curb kids’ use of social media

Members of Congress are seeking to set a minimum age to access social media and put more of the onus on social media companies and their algorithms, while also giving parents more controls in trying to protect their kids online. Peter Cade/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Attempts to get kids off of their phones are ramping up in Congress, despite intense lobbying by social media giants and pushback by those worried about violations of First Amendment speech rights.

Lawmakers are seeking to set a minimum age to access social media and put more of the onus on social media companies and their algorithms, while also giving parents more controls in trying to protect their kids online.

A bipartisan coalition of U.S. senators, led by Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Brian Schatz of Hawaii, introduced a new version of a bill that would set a minimum age of 13 to access social media platforms.

It would also block the use of “addictive algorithms” on social media platforms for those under 17 and limit social media use in schools. In late April, the bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, but the committee said it does not have a markup date.  

Major social media platforms, such as TikTok and Meta’s Instagram, have been criticized for their algorithms that can influence kids’ and teens’ mental health.

In late April, President Joe Biden signed a bill that forces TikTok to divest from its Chinese parent company ByteDance within the next year or face a possible ban in the United States. The law — baked into a massive foreign aid package — grew primarily out of privacy and national security concerns. The app and its parent company have both sued to block the potential ban.

Responding to the unhappiness among parents, Meta’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologized in January to distraught family members of social media victims during a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee surrounding child safety online.

Yet Meta and ByteDance have also invested significantly in their lobbying efforts, according to an April report from the group Issue One.

The nonpartisan nonprofit found that in the first quarter of 2024, Meta spent a whopping $7.64 million on lobbying and had one lobbyist for every eight Congress members. Similarly, ByteDance spent $2.68 million and had one lobbyist for every 11 members of Congress.

Kids online safety bill

Other bipartisan congressional efforts are also targeting the algorithms of social media companies to protect kids’ safety online.

Sens. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, and Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, introduced a new version of their legislation, the Kids Online Safety Act, in May 2023. The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation approved the bill, and in December it was placed on the Senate legislative calendar.

Part of the revised measure, which has garnered the support of over half the U.S. Senate, would require platforms to give minors the option to “protect their information, disable addictive product features, and opt out of personalized algorithmic recommendations” and allow for certain parental controls to “spot harmful behaviors.”

The bill would also provide a platform for parents and teachers to report such behavior. Lawmakers in the U.S. House introduced a companion bill in April. A House Energy and Commerce subcommittee forwarded the bill to the full committee in late May.

Free speech worries 

But attempts to either tailor or limit minors’ interactions on social media have been met with objections tied to potential First Amendment violations.

“Any government limits on what we can say or see online are likely to be unconstitutional,” said Aaron Terr, director of public advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a nonprofit that defends free speech rights.

Terr said many of these types of bills “hit an unconstitutional trifecta,” where “they threaten the First Amendment rights of the platforms to disseminate speech, the First Amendment rights of minors to access lawful content and the rights of adults to speak or access content anonymously because they may have to provide information about their identity in order to prove their age.”

“Parents are in the best position to set rules about their kids’ social media use, and the government shouldn’t usurp parental authority,” Terr said. He also noted that when it comes to laws attempting to regulate social media or speech in general, “one-size-fits-all approaches don’t work.”

“A problem with these laws, too, is who decides what’s ‘appropriate’? There’s vagueness issues with these laws, and the problem with that is that it gives the government a lot of discretion to just insert its own subjective determination of what they consider is appropriate and substituting its judgment for that of private platforms and the people who use them,” he added.

Warnings about kids’ health

In 2023, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy publicly warned that, despite more research needed to grasp social media’s impact and some evidence outlining potential benefits for kids and teens, “there are ample indicators that social media can also have a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.”

Dr. Jenny Radesky, a developmental behavioral pediatrician and an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan Medical School, told States Newsroom that the science is clearest around sleep.

“When kids are using media for long periods of time, or when it’s upsetting and kind of makes them more alert or kind of dysregulated or when it’s used in the evening hours — all of those are linked with worse sleep, and sleep is so essential for child development,” said Radesky, chair of the Council on Communications and Media at the American Academy of Pediatrics. The AAP is among the over 200 organizations supporting the Kids Online Safety Act.

“We don’t want to pursue legislation that somehow is regulating the content that can show up online because that’s a real First Amendment problem, so you don’t want to have something that’s a law that says this sort of content can’t show up in kids’ feeds. But what we are asking is for some accountability,” said Radesky.

Radesky said so much of the work of making sure kids have safe experiences online falls on their parents. “That’s exhausting, and it’s something we don’t all know how to do,” she said.

She said parents should feel free to talk to their members of Congress and say: “Listen, parenting is hard enough right now. Please do something to clean up the digital ecosystem, so that this can be easier, and the default experience for kids can lean more towards healthy and positive and less towards these risks that have been documented over the past five to 10 years.”

Phones in the classroom

At the state level, there is also a push to get kids off their phones in the classroom, with several states either passing or introducing bills barring students from using their phones while in class, as Stateline reported in March.

Last year, Florida became the first state to require public schools to prohibit students from using their cell phones in class.

Indiana has also followed with similar action. Gov. Eric Holcomb signed a bill into law earlier this year that — with some exceptions — requires schools to bar the use of wireless communication devices during class.

Some lawmakers in Congress have also sought concrete studies regarding the use of cell phones in schools, including Sens. Tom Cotton, of Arkansas, and Tim Kaine, of Virginia.

The two introduced legislation in November that would require the U.S. Department of Education to “conduct a study regarding the use of mobile devices in elementary and secondary schools, and to establish a pilot program of awarding grants to enable certain schools to create a school environment free of mobile devices.” In November, the bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.

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