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Senate Bill Would Block Children Under 16 from Social Media

Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley has introduced a bill to keep anyone younger than 16 years old off of social media. The move comes amid a renewed focus in regulating large technology companies and how social media affects children.

(TNS) — U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley on Tuesday introduced a bill to keep anyone younger than 16 off of social media, as Congress has showed a renewed focus in regulating large technology companies and how social media affects children.

The Missouri Republican’s bill is part of his two-pronged approach to address how social media affects children, alongside an effort to create a panel that would study the harms the sites have on children.

But the efficacy of a law setting a minimum social media age was immediately called into question by a panel speaking to the Judiciary Committee about children’s online safety.

“I do not think it addresses the fundamental question we must answer: how to create online spaces that are safer when kids decide to enter,” Emma Lembke, the founder of the Log Off Movement, a group focused on social media’s impact on mental health, told lawmakers. “I think we should spend more time looking at how to make those platforms safer because kids will circumnavigate those restrictions.”

Sites like Facebook, YouTube and TikTok currently require a minimum age of 13, according to their terms and conditions. But the restrictions are generally easy for children to get around. Lembke, who is currently a 20-year-old student at Washington University of St. Louis, said she started using social media when she was 12.

She wasn’t alone in questioning whether an age limit would actually help lawmakers get to the root of the problem.

Michelle DeLaune, the president and CEO of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, said she thought it would be difficult to enforce an age limit. Mitch Prinstein, a psychologist with the American Psychological Association, noted that it could help to have teenagers join social media later, but even at 16 their brains aren’t fully developed. Kristin Bride, a social media reform advocate, said she felt the priority should be on safeguards for children rather than setting a minimum age.

Hawley said in the committee meeting that he wasn’t deterred by people saying children would find a way to get around age restrictions. He said if Congress made it the law, it would give parents more authority to keep their children off social media. Many parents say they face pressure to allow their children on social media because its a common way for children to connect.

“As a parent, it would put me much more in the driver’s seat if the law was that kids couldn’t get on social media until 16,” Hawley said. “It would help me as a parent. Parents are in favor of it, I got the idea from parents.”

For years, Congress has talked about — but failed — to pass major legislation regulating the tech industry. While both Republicans and Democrats have expressed support for tightening regulations and allowing technology companies to be held accountable for content posted on their platforms, efforts have stalled over the details on how to confront the power technology companies have gained by collecting data, information and attention for more than a decade.

The renewed push comes after President Joe Biden talked about protecting children’s mental health in his State of the Union address last month, where he called on Congress to pass a law preventing the companies from collecting data on children.

Several of the senators on the Judiciary Committee expressed frustration at how slowly Congress has moved to confront social media companies, when several of them have been working on solutions for years.

“It is almost as if these social media platforms are operating in the days of the Wild West and anything goes,” said Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R- Tennessee. “And when these children are on these platforms, they’re the product. Their data is taken, that data is monetized and then it is sold to the advertisers who are going to feed more information to the children.”

Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who chairs the Judiciary Committee, promised there would be a meeting where lawmakers would debate all the proposals on the table and try to find a path forward.

There are many. At the committee meeting some lawmakers talked about an effort to revise Section 230 — a law passed in 1996 that helps protect technology companies from being sued over content posted to their site by a third party — so that companies could be held accountable if there is child pornography on their site.

Others talked about eliminating Section 230 entirely. Some talked about why they thought setting a minimum age at 16 is a good idea. Others talked about why it wouldn’t work. They talked about giving federal funds to researchers to learn about the harms of social media, about whether social media is an addiction and what can be done to prevent child trafficking.

Defenders of the tech industry say Section 230 is important for allowing people to be able to speak freely on the Internet and that it’s help create the Internet as we know it today. If it were eliminated, social media sites would likely be held to the same rules as publishers, which are accountable for information they post and can be sued for libel or slander.

Hawley said he wants to change the law so parents can sue companies over their policies — for example if a court determined that the companies policies didn’t do enough to prevent cyber bullying after people filed a class action lawsuit.

“If we give the power to parents to go into court and say we’re gonna sue you, they will fear that far more than they fear some regulator here in Washington, D.C.,” Hawley said.

Bride, who’s son died by suicide after being anonymously bullied on the app SnapChat, filed a lawsuit against the company that was dismissed because of Section 230 protections. She said it shouldn’t be up to grieving parents to file lawsuits against tech companies to create change because it’s too late for them. She said she wanted to see Congress take action to protect children.

“It is so difficult to tell our stories of the very worst days of our lives over and over and over again and then not see change,” Bride said. “We are done with the hearings, we are done with the stories, we are looking to you all for action and I am confident that you can all come together and do this for us and for America’s children.”

©2023 McClatchy Washington Bureau, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.