A new federal bill unveiled Wednesday would establish a national minimum age for social media use and require tech companies to get parents’ consent before creating accounts for teens, reflecting a growing trend at all levels of government to restrict how Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and other platforms engage with young users.
The proposed legislation by a bipartisan group of US senators aims to address what policymakers, mental health advocates and critics of tech platforms say is a mental health crisis fueled by social media.
Under the bill, known as the Protecting Kids on Social Media Act, social media platforms would be barred from letting kids below the age of 13 create accounts or interact with other users, though children would still be permitted to view content without logging into an account, according to draft text of the legislation.
Tech platforms covered by the legislation would also have to obtain a parent or guardian’s consent before creating new accounts for users under the age of 18. The companies would be banned from using teens’ personal information to target them with content or advertising, though they could still provide limited targeted recommendations to teens by relying on other contextual cues.
It’s the latest step by lawmakers to develop age limitations for tech platforms after similar bills became law this year in states such as Arkansas and Utah. But the legislation could also trigger a broader debate, and possible future court challenges, raising questions about the privacy and constitutional rights of young Americans.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Hawaii Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz, an architect of the federal bill, said Congress urgently needs to protect kids from social media harms.
“Social media companies have stumbled onto a stubborn, devastating fact,” Schatz said. “The way to get kids to linger on the platforms and to maximize profit is to upset them — to make them outraged, to make them agitated, to make them scared, to make them vulnerable, to make them feel helpless, anxious [and] despondent.”
Most major social media companies already bar kids younger than 13 from their platforms, the result of a federal children’s privacy law known as COPPA. But enforcing the restriction has been a challenge.
Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, a leading Republican co-sponsor, said existing ways of ensuring kids are not underage online are too easily circumvented. The two senators were joined by Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy and Alabama Republican Sen. Katie Britt.
In what could be one of the most far-reaching changes to the technology landscape, the bill seeks to create a government-run age verification program that can certify users’ ages or parental status based on identification they upload to the government system or to a third-party verifier.
Under the bill, that program would be a pilot project administered by the Department of Commerce, and participation and use of the federally managed age verifier would be voluntary. But it would represent a potentially vast expansion of the government’s role in regulating websites where age verification is a requirement.
Tech companies could still develop their own in-house age verification technology or hire third party companies to perform the verification, lawmakers said.
Violations of the proposed law could mean millions of dollars in Federal Trade Commission fines for social media companies. But it would not apply to a long list of tech products including email services, teleconferencing providers, payments companies, video game storefronts, digital newsletter platforms, cloud storage services, travel websites and online reference guides such as Wikipedia or user review sites such as Yelp.
Wednesday’s legislation could be viewed as competing with another, separate bill being developed by Connecticut Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Tennessee Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn. That legislation, known as the Kids’ Online Safety Act, will be reintroduced in the Senate “very shortly,” Blumenthal said, expressing concerns about the Schatz-Cotton bill.
“I welcome additional ideas,” Blumenthal said. But, he added, “I have some concerns about an age identification system that would create a national database with personal information about kids in the hands of Big Tech, potentially leading to misuse or exploitation. I have other concerns about a bill that would put accountability on parents rather than on Big Tech, as our legislation does.”
In response to the bill, Design it For Us, a youth coalition pushing for changes to social media in the face of mental health concerns, said lawmakers should focus on shaping the basic product design of social media platforms, rather than imposing after-the-fact usage limitations.
“We believe that any legislation addressing harm on social media should put the onus on companies to make their platforms safer, instead of preventing kids and teens from being on platforms at all,” said Zamaan Qureshi, a co-chair of the group.
Opponents of the type of proposals outlined Wednesday have also said restrictions on teens threaten their constitutional rights. For example, the tech industry and digital rights advocates have said Utah’s legislation requiring age verification and parental consent would infringe on the First Amendment rights of young Americans to access information and chill the speech rights of all Americans.
“Requiring that all users in Utah tie their accounts to their age, and ultimately, their identity, will lead to fewer people expressing themselves, or seeking information online,” wrote the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights organization, last month. “In addition, there are tens of millions of U.S. residents without a form of government-issued identification. Those in Utah would likely be age-gated offline.”
The Computer and Communications Industry Association, which represents companies including Google and Facebook-parent Meta, has said age verification rules will require consumers to expose even more of their personal information to tech companies or third parties.
“That data collection creates extra privacy and security risks for everyone,” CCIA wrote in a letter to Utah Gov. Spencer Cox last month. “This mandated data collection would include collecting highly sensitive personal information about children, including collecting and storing their geolocation to ensure they do not reside outside of the state when confirming that they are of age to be using these services.”
On Wednesday, however, Cotton dismissed the privacy concerns, calling it not a “serious argument” when identity or age verification is used by government agencies and online gambling sites. He also said the bill will actually reduce the amount of personal information tech platforms effectively can collect by blocking the ability of kids under 13 to access their sites.
“If a child is, say, too young to sign a contract or too young to open a bank account in the real world, they’re too young to sign terms of service agreements and use social media in the digital world,” Cotton told reporters.
Schatz added that the bill has not been presented to social media platforms for feedback, but predicted that in short order the industry will be deploying “an army of lobbyists” to fight it.
“The tech industry is going to come at this bill, and every other kids’ online safety bill, with everything it’s got,” Schatz said. “But the burden of proof is on those who want to protect the status quo, because the status quo is making a whole generation of users mentally ill.”