Sens. Marcia Blackburn, R-Tenn., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., hold a news conference at the Capitol.
Tom Williams | CQ-Roll Call, Inc. | Getty Images
Lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee found rare agreement at a recent hearing on how Congress can help protect children from online harm.
Tuesday’s hearing, which included a parent who lost a child to suicide after cyberbullying, representatives from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the American Psychological Association, pointed to the importance the new Congress places on protecting children online.
They speak out in support of the Children’s Online Safety Act, which requires sites likely to be accessed by children 16 or younger to maintain certain privacy and safety protections by default. The bill passed the Senate Commerce Committee unanimously last year and was considered part of the year-end legislation, though it was not ultimately cut.
“We must and will double down on the Children’s Online Safety Act,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who co-sponsored the bill with Sen. Marcia Blackburn, R-Tenn., said at the hearing.
Both Blackburn and Blumenthal pointed to a recently released 2021 study on youth risks from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that showed mental health is deteriorating. The survey found that 20% of girls and 11% of boys reported being bullied online in the past year.
President Joe Biden is behind the movement for change. Following remarks he made in his State of the Union address last week, Biden said at an event on Tuesday that “we need to pass legislation on harmful technology that affects our children.”
The level of solidarity on the issue is rare in a deeply divided Congress. While lawmakers share similar goals in other discussions about technology regulation when it comes to protecting children online, they are more united on the types of action they want to see happen.
However, KOSA and similar state-level measures have drawn criticism from outside groups, with some arguing that the rules would be too difficult to enforce in a fair and feasible manner.
The groups said last year that vague language requiring platforms to prevent harm to minors could lead to too much content being restricted, cutting off children from important information, especially for the LGBTQ community and others who may have limited places to turn. . They also warn that some parental consent measures can put children who are abused at home at risk.
Evan Greer, director of digital rights group Fight for the Future, tweeted her displeasure with the legislative effort on Tuesday.
“I feel outraged that lawmakers like @SenBlumenthal continue to ignore overwhelming opposition from advocacy groups and push the same problematic bills that we’ve already explained will do more harm than good, and then blame #lobbying on tech companies when not pass,” Greer wrote.
Blumenthal and Blackburn overhauled KOSA last year, but failed to fully win over critics.
Mitch Prinstein, chief science officer at the American Psychological Association, said it’s critical that children protect themselves without depriving themselves of useful resources.
“It’s very important to recognize that online discrimination has a direct effect on mental health,” Prinstein said. “However, it is important to recognize that the online community also provides vital health information and provides social support that can benefit that community.”
All six witnesses at Tuesday’s hearing said they support KOSA and see it as an important step toward protecting children online.
“I think we can do this”
At the end of the hearing, Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., promised panelists a markup of legislation on the topic and said the committee would have to work out jurisdictional issues with the Commerce Committee.
“That doesn’t sound like much, but it is,” Durbin said. “That means we’re going to come together as a judiciary committee and put legislation on the table to try to decide as a committee whether we can agree on common goals.”
Durbin said, “I think we can do that just by feeling what I heard today.”
There’s no shortage of anxiety in Washington, D.C., and beyond surrounding kids on the Internet. US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy recently said that 13, the current age at which one is allowed to have a social media account, is “too early” to join such platforms.
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., introduced the MATURE Act (which stands for Making Age Verification Technology Unified, Robust and Effective) on Tuesday. The bill would make 16 the legal age to open a social media account and put the onus on platforms to stay compliant.
Lawmakers in Utah also tried to ban social media accounts under the age of 16. However, a bill that recently passed the state House of Representatives removed that provision, instead allowing users to sue social media companies that knowingly cause harm.
The issue of the age limit and its potential effectiveness was a big topic on Tuesday.
Rose Bronstein, whose son Nate died by suicide last year at age 15 after being cyberbullied, told CNBC in a phone interview after the hearing that raising the age limit would make it easier for parents to keep their children off social media. Their children would not risk being isolated because their peers would not be allowed to join either.
Christine McComas said age restrictions would have limited impact.
“Kids are always three steps ahead of us with any kind of technology,” said McComas, whose daughter Grace killed herself at age 15 in 2012 after experiencing cyberbullying. “We really need to keep talking about all of this and thinking about it as societal change.”
Bronstein and McComas urged state legislatures in Illinois and Maryland, respectively, to adopt statewide protections. California has already enacted its Age-Friendly Design Code, which shares similar goals as KOSA. On Monday, Maryland introduced its own version of the bill.
“I think people are more aware now than ever before,” McComas said. “And of course, it’s not just talk. We heard from members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, from ultra-conservatives to liberal liberals, who see the problem and feel something needs to be done.”
But other advocates say it’s time for more action.
Christine Bride, who testified at the hearing, lost her son Carson at age 16 to suicide in 2020 after cyberbullying. Bride said she and other parents are tired of seeing legislation on the issue fail to move forward.
“It’s so hard to tell our stories about the worst day of our lives over and over and over and then see no change,” Bride told lawmakers. “We’re done with the hearings, we’re done with the stories. We look to all of you for action, and I am confident that you can all come together and do this for us and for America’s children.”
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