Keeping kids and teens safe online is a priority for many parents today. Unsurprisingly, Congress and many state legislatures have also been taking notice of these concerns.
However, a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing this week titled “Big Tech and Keeping Children Safe from Online Sexual Exploitation” showed that policy attempts to regulate online safety may be more about animosity towards tech companies than a productive conversation about a nuanced concern.
Being a parent in the digital age is a difficult task. The desire to improve child safety is often rooted in good intentions. However, focusing solely on the negative experiences and potential risks of young people online often overpowers the reality of the many positive experiences young people have had, from finding a supportive group for the LGBTQ community to using online platforms to become entrepreneurs. Just as the offline experience can vary for teenagers and families, so does the online experience.
While individual families may have many different and valid concerns for their child’s experiences online, these concerns are diverse and lack a single solution even within households. The result is that parents often need a variety of tools at all levels of their internet experience. The good news is that a wide variety of platforms, entrepreneurs, and civil society groups are responding to the demands of parents to help respond to a range of concerns they may have about their children’s online activities. These responses are both better able to fulfill an individual family’s needs and evolve with our ever‐changing technology than would a static approach from a policy out of Congress.
As the hearing showed, the term “online safety” can mean many things. While the hearing title focused on a specific issue of youth online sexual exploitation, everything from the presence of illegal drugs online to public accounts for young creators to whether TikTok was “a tool of the Chinese Communist Party” came up. Trying to solve such diverse problems at a policy level is unlikely to solve all (or any) of these, and instead risks making the true bad actors even more difficult to find by pushing them further underground.
Furthermore, trying to control these many variables is likely to bring significant consequences for the speech and privacy of all users —not just young people or those engaging in problematic behavior.
Perhaps even more concerning is that many of these policy proposals would create more problems than they solve and eliminate beneficial uses of the internet. Social media is far more than just TikTok and Instagram. Poor definitions of what constitutes a social media platform or recommendation algorithm in legislation could target a variety of useful parental control tools and unexpected websites including user‐generated book reviews on sites like Goodreads and local newspapers.
Age‐verification‐based proposals would require all users to put in more information and, depending on the specific proposal, including uploading their driver’s license to use the internet. The result would diminish the privacy of all users, requiring platforms to collect and store more sensitive user data.
Other proposals that would limit the use of algorithms could eliminate certain parental control features and positive recommendations or redirections as well as negative ones. Finally, calls to revoke Section 230 and “open the courtroom doors” would spur an onslaught of often unfounded litigation towards platforms, forcing them to dedicate less time to developing tools their users demand (such as those that assist in the youth online safety.) Without Section 230 protections, their limited time and resources would be spent in courts, and not dealing with the onslaught of content they must review in any given minute.
Each generation worries about if the kids in the next generation are okay, and many are concerned about the growing mental health issues among young people. However, we shouldn’t rush to blame technology without a thorough examination of a complicated issue. Rather than blame technology for our problems, we should look to empower and educate parents and young people alike on how to have a better online experience and equip them with the tools of what to do if or when they encounter such negative content.