Lawsuits and Technology Limits Hinder States Trying to Protect Kids on Social Media

States trying to regulate social media use by kids run into a number of roadblocks in courtrooms and legislatures around the country.

The mere presence of a problem is often a primary departure point for political tensions. But when it comes to social media use, most can agree there is a public health and safety component at stake, especially for children. Legislation specifically has focused on how to protect children from these dangers.

From a health standpoint, many specialists have connected the youth mental health crisis to social media with research showing a correlation to increased levels of anxiety and depression in children. Safety elements arise in terms of protecting the personal data of children from exposure and shielding them from adults looking to prey on minors. While parties can agree on these issues generally, debate begins to swirl around how exactly governments could or should regulate the industry, or even the users, to mitigate these harms.

According to a Route-Fifty article, privacy concerns, civil liberties, and technological capabilities are still in question when lawmakers try to put new protections in place. The article focuses in on technology as the most consequential component, specifically the processes used to verify the age of users so they can be shielded from harmful content. Essentially, industry oversight tactics can’t get off the starting block because there is no standardization or regulation yet for the technology and process that can safely and effectively verify the age of a minor who is voluntarily sharing their personal data with the program. Many companies are using uncertified, third party agencies with a number of different strategies for verification. In essence, the existing process hinges on collecting even more data from the underage user and sharing it with an unregulated, uncertified entity that can use whatever methods they choose. This is a process which understandably arouses skepticism, but a researcher from the article points out that there might be a need to accept some uncertainty.

“I think the big problem here is that a lot of these bills don’t seem to acknowledge that this is actually kind of a hard problem, and that there are these trade-offs that we need to consider,” Brennen said.

While potentially accepting some trade-offs on privacy and data management might be useful in the lawmaking process, the article points out that those lawmakers should be able to rely on standardized guidance for the policies. Researchers are imploring bodies like the National Institute for Standards and Technology and the Federal Trade Commission to release guidance on how age verification should be done but parameters have yet to materialize. In lieu of more detail, there is little comfort and assurances that the trade-offs are worth it.  Regardless, the political desire to show progress has amounted to laws that have passed without the necessary details, leaving them to steering committees and study groups that don’t have anything meaningful to go on.

Even a recent bill in Maryland can help convey the conundrum of trying to protect the child’s data by eliminating an option to protect the child’s experience on the platform. Lawmakers in Annapolis considered legislation just this past session at the beginning of the year, with the introduction of House Bill 901 by Delegate Solomon and Delegate Wilson. This bill required companies offering an online product likely to be used by minors to assess and disclose information regarding their procedures for protecting the personal data of children. If this bill had passed it would likely have created significant problems for a safety provision, like in other states, that are, as a standard, attempting to verify the age of a minor through an unregulated third party.

A recent policy paper cited in the article summed up the situation by simply stating that “no perfect solution exists,” but new insights on the issue continue to pile up. As recently as May, the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office released another advisory on the topic. In February the National Institute of Health (NIH) shared findings on the impacts of youth mental health and social media specifically during the pandemic. Even before the Facebook Files of 2021 and the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma in 2020, was Nicholas Carr’s Pulitzer Prize finalist book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, a title that dates back to 2010. After at least a decade since the research began to surface, and even another decade more since the social media programs began compiling users, a meager and experimental catalogue of solutions remain.