Safety or Censorship: Congress Rushes to Pass Broad Child Online Protection Laws

A trio of bills that include kicking kids younger than 13 off social media have been added to a FAA reauthorization bill that must pass by Friday.

Eamonn Fitzmaurice/The 74

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As Washington lawmakers scramble this week to finalize their last significant legislation before the fall presidential election — a must-pass bill to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration — they’ve tacked on more than a dozen unrelated amendments, including three online safety bills affecting students. 

Taken together, the trio would create sweeping restrictions on children’s access to social media, impose new requirements on social media companies to ensure their products aren’t harmful to youth mental health and bolster educators’ digital surveillance obligations to ensure kids aren’t swiping through their favorite feeds in class. 

The three separate digital safety bills have bipartisan support and lawmakers could greenlight them as part of the FAA reauthorization legislation, which faces a Friday deadline. If passed, the legislative package could potentially end years of debate on these thorny questions and would mark the most consequential effort to regulate tech companies and children’s online safety in decades.

“Parents know there’s no good reason for a child to be doom-scrolling or binge-watching reels that glorify unhealthy lifestyles,” Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican who is co-sponsoring The Kids Off Social Ƶ Act, said in . “Young students should have their eyes on the board, not their phones.” 

The move comes as lawmakers across the political spectrum sound an alarm over concerns that teens’ addiction to their social media feeds — complete with algorithms designed to keep them hooked and coming back for more — have exacerbated mental health issues in young people. It follows congressional testimony by of knowing that apps like Instagram inflamed body image issues and other negative triggers among youth but failed to act to mitigate the harm while upholding a “see no evil, hear no evil” culture.

The controversial and heavily debated bills saw new life in January after social media executives were grilled during a contentious congressional hearing and Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologized to parents who said their children were damaged, and in some cases died, after the company’s algorithms fed them a barrage of pernicious content. 

But critics contend the provisions amount to heavy-handed and unconstitutional censorship that fails to confront the root cause of young people’s anguish — and in some cases could hurt them by limiting their access to educational materials, blocking information designed to help them deal with mental health issues or by subjecting them to greater online surveillance.

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologizes during a January Senate committee hearing to families who say their children suffered emotional anguish, and in some cases died, as a result of their social media use. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

The three amendments are:

  • The Kids Online Safety Act would require tech companies to “exercise reasonable care” to ensure their services don’t surface in children’s feeds material deemed harmful, including posts that promote suicide, eating disorders and sexual exploitation.

    First introduced in 2022, the legislation would also require tools that would give parents greater ability to monitor their children’s’ online activities and mandate tech companies enable their most restrictive privacy settings for their youngest users by default. 
  • The Children and Teens’ Online Privacy Protection Act, also known as COPPA 2.0, amends a 1998 law that requires tech companies receive parental consent before collecting data about children under 13 years old. COPPA 2.0 would extend existing requirements to children under 16, ban targeted advertising for children and require tech companies to delete data collected about children upon parental request. 
  • The Kids Off Social Ƶ Act, introduced last week by Cruz and Hawaii Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz, would prohibit children under 13 years old from creating social media accounts and restrict tech companies from using algorithms to serve content to children under 17. It would also require schools that receive federal internet connectivity funding to block students’ access to social media sites on campus networks. 

The bill’s provisions have faced widespread pushback from digital rights and privacy advocates, including the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, which called it an unconstitutional infringement that “replaces parents’ choices about what their children can do online with a government-mandated prohibition.” 

On Tuesday, TikTok and its Chinese parent company that bans the popular social media app in the U.S. unless it sells the platform to an approved buyer, accusing the government of stifling free speech and unfairly singling it out based on unfounded accusations it poses a national security threat.

In March, — including Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas and Utah — to impose new parental consent requirements for children to create social media accounts. The Georgia law also bans social media use on school devices and creates age verification requirements for porn websites.

Aliya Bhatia (Center for Democracy & Technology)

Aliya Bhatia, a policy analyst at the nonprofit Center for Democracy and Technology, said that each bill now included in the FAA reauthorization act has been the subject of debate and opposition. Including them in unrelated, must-pass legislation with a short deadline, she said, “undermines the active conversations that are happening” about the bills, which she said are “just not ready for prime time.”

The Kids Online Safety Act, which has the bipartisan , is endorsed by a host of , including the American Psychological Association, Common Sense Ƶ and the American Academy of Pediatrics, who argue the rules could protect youth from the corrosive effects of social media. 

At the same time, the legislation, which has differing House and Senate versions, has also received and those representing LGBTQ+ students. The groups argue the bill amounts to government censorship with a likely disparate impact on LGBTQ+ youth and students of color. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, has endorsed the legislation as a way to restrict youth access to LGBTQ+ content, that “keeping trans content away from children is protecting kids.” 

Privacy advocates have warned the legislation could result in age-verification requirements across the internet that could require online users of all ages to provide identifying information to web platforms. 

Meanwhile, social media’s effects on youth mental well-being remain the subject of research and debate. In last year, the American Psychological Association noted that while social media use “is not inherently beneficial or harmful to young people,” the platforms should not surface to their young users content that encourages them to engage in risky behaviors or is discriminatory. 

In , Surgeon General Vivek Murthy noted that social media use is nearly universal among young people, with more than a third of teens saying they use the apps “almost constantly.” While its impact on youth mental health isn’t fully understood, Murphy said, emerging research suggests that its use can be harmful — perpetuating a national youth mental health crisis “that we must urgently address.” 

The Kids off Social Ƶ Act, which would prohibit youth access to sites like Instagram, is that requires schools and libraries to monitor and filter youth internet use as a condition of receiving federal E-Rate internet connectivity funding. In response, schools nationwide have adopted digital surveillance tools that use algorithms to sift through billions of student communications to identify problematic online behaviors.

Meanwhile, a recent found that web filters regularly used in schools do more than keep kids from goofing off in class. They also routinely limit students’ access to homework materials, educationally appropriate information about sexual and reproductive health and resources designed to prevent youth suicides. 

For years, privacy advocates have called on the Federal Communications Commission to clarify how the rules apply to the modern internet and have argued that schools’ tech-driven monitoring efforts go far beyond their original intent. 

When the law went into effect in 2001, monitoring “quite literally meant looking over a kid’s shoulder as they used the computer,” said Kristin Woelfel, a policy counsel of the Center for Democracy and Technology, but in 2024 student monitoring has become “a very specific term that now means really pervasive and technical surveillance.” 

of students, parents and teachers last year, the nonprofit found a majority supported digital activity monitoring in schools yet nearly three-quarters of youth said that filtering and blocking technology made it more difficult to complete some homework, a challenge reported more often among LGBTQ+ students, and that the tools routinely led to disciplinary actions and police involvement. 

“They don’t work as people think they do,” she said. “That, coupled with data that shows it’s actually detrimental to students, indicates even more that this is not the right path forward.” 

In a letter to lawmakers last week, a coalition of education nonprofits including the American Library Association and the Consortium for School Networking expressed concern about attaching social media limitations to E-Rate funding, which schools rely on to facilitate learning. 

“Schools and libraries will face delays or denials of E-rate funding due to allegations of non-compliance,” the groups wrote, arguing that it would give federal authorities control over social media policies that should be left to local officials. “The bill’s provisions seem to suggest that technology-driven learning models are always harmful, even when carefully crafted to promote educational purposes. In fact, there are several social media uses that can be beneficial for education and learning.”

Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican of Texas, questions Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg during a January Senate committee hearing about child sexual exploitation on the internet. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

In a announcing the legislation, Schatz offered the opposite perspective.

“There is no good reason for a nine-year-old to be on Instagram or TikTok,” he said. “There just isn’t. The growing evidence is clear: social media is making kids more depressed, more anxious, and more suicidal.”

In justifying the legislation, Schatz cites reporting by the psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt, who argues in his new book that young people — and girls, in particular — face a “tidal wave” of anguish that can be traced back to the rise of smartphones. 

Haidt’s characterization of tech’s role in youth well-being has , including by developmental psychologist Candice Odgers, who argued in that claims “that digital technologies are rewiring our children’s brains and causing an epidemic of mental illness is not supported by science.” 

Among the evidence is on the well-being of nearly 1 million people ages 13 to 34 and 35 and over as it was being adopted in 72 countries and found “no evidence suggesting that the global penetration of social media is associated with widespread psychological harm.”

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