Congress, pass Protecting Kids Act to keep children safe from dangers of social media

It is thoughtfully crafted legislation that represents the best compromise to safeguard young peoples’ mental health, a former tech CEO writes. Minors don’t have the critical thinking skills to filter the truths and lies online.

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Advocates are pressuring state law makers to pass stronger online consumer privacy laws. Fourteen states have laws that are inadequate, they warn.

The Protecting Kids on Social Media Act is designed to shield young people who don’t have the critical thinking skills to navigate content targeted by social media algorithms.

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As both a former founder/CEO of several global social media companies, and as a father, I know too well that social media is no place for young children. Every social media executive I know feels the same. We are zealots about keeping our kids out of the arena.

On June 13, Texas banned minors from social media without parental consent, following several other states that recently passed similar legislation. This follows the May 23 public advisory, by U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, affirming my sentiments with his warning that social media has a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents. Murthy called on lawmakers, tech companies and parents to “urgently take action.”

Fortunately, there are bipartisan legislative solutions that can help right now. On April 26, U.S. Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Katie Britt (R-Ala.) introduced the Protecting Kids on Social Media Act. The legislation provides critically synergistic solutions and deserves consideration.

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Here are four reasons why:

First, the bill would “prohibit users who are under age 13 from accessing social media platforms.” While there is some debate about the proper minimum age for social media, such as legislation presented by U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley (R- Mo.) in June to make it 16, or the surgeon general’s warning in January that 13 may be too early, most people can agree that under 13 is too young. I’ve been in those camps of concern for years.

Second, the legislation would “require parental or guardian consent for social media users under age 18.” This provision has generated some pushback concerning kids’ rights to privacy and free speech.

In fact, the bill does not give parents control to oversee all their kids’ online activity. Its raison d’être is to require parental consent for kids to join a social media platform. Additionally, it contains provisions allowing kids to watch content on platforms without logging in. Kids could, for example, still surf the web, watch videos on YouTube, etc., thereby providing an even-handed balance between parental consent and personal freedoms for kids.

Third, the legislation would “prohibit the use of algorithmic recommendation systems on individuals under age 18.” The damaging, mind-warping effects of social media algorithms are well-documented. Facebook’s former director of monetization, Tim Kendall, admitted that Facebook built algorithms that have facilitated the spread of misinformation, encouraged divisive rhetoric and laid the groundwork for a mental health crisis.”

Minors, never mind most of us adults, don’t have critical thinking skills developed enough to filter the truths and falsehoods of micro-targeted content designed to persuade and manipulate.

Fourth, the bill would “require that social media platforms verify the age of their users.” Previously, I’ve been outspoken against age verification systems. A decade ago, as a steering committee member of NSTIC (National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace), and then with the IDESG (Identity Ecosystem Steering Group), I argued against the proposed “national identity system,” as a violation of individual rights to privacy.

The most recent social media company I founded (MeWe) was the first to require users be at least 16 — albeit without verification. Current social media giants take the same “honor system” approach, with 13 as their minimum age. It doesn’t work.

Just 10 years later, Real ID verification has become a necessity. RIP anonymity. True verification is the only viable way to accomplish this. Here’s the reality check: Between the massive data ecosystem and the information troves of the government, they already know who all of us are. Let’s put what they know to good use, while protecting our privacy every way we can.

The legislation includes privacy provisions, including its mandate that a social media platform shall not use any information collected as part of the platform’s age verification process for any other purpose.” It also specifies that a government-created pilot program for age verificationshall be voluntary.” Companies can create their own verification systems or work with third-party vendors.

In summary, while I appreciate and echo the concerns different constituencies may have with the legislation, it’s thoughtfully crafted and represents the best compromise. Think of it as akin to the first seatbelt laws saving us from ourselves while behind the wheel. Today social media is the car, and it’s veering out of control.

Fortunately, both Democrats and Republicans, and a majority of Americans, are aligned on the need for corrective legislation. The Protecting Kids on Social Media Act is the right step forward.

Mark Weinstein is a leading tech thought leader and privacy expert and founder of MeWe, which he left in July 2022.

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