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Common Sense Cinches a Late-Game Victory for Kids by Passing CAMRA in Congress

With the passage of one of Common Sense's long-time priorities, we are now closer to getting much-needed research on how technology impacts kids' and teens' development and health.

Young girl looking at phone

For Congress, the end of the year means a flurry of unpassed priorities, competing agendas, and 11th-hour dealmaking. By the time the final negotiations have been made and a consensus has been reached, many will be left a little unhappy. And for lobbyists, organizers, and advocates like us, the decisions from those in the room can mean the difference between months or even years of hard work paid off and dashed hopes.

For advocates, wins can be few and far in between. At Common Sense, we have been disappointed this year. We had hoped to see stronger federal privacy protections for kids, and more accountability around how companies design their platforms. But we start 2023 with a feeling of optimism, as one of our long-term priorities, the Children and Media Research Advancement (CAMRA) Act, passed in the final omnibus bill last year.

CAMRA is a bipartisan law that authorizes the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to conduct a research program on the impact of digital media on child development. We started advocating for this program over a decade ago, and the CAMRA bill has seen many iterations and Congresses since then. With our continued outreach to congressional leadership, perseverance, and a lot of support from some like-minded organizations and congressional members, we finally saw it through to the finish line.

CAMRA is small in nature but big in impact. This bipartisan victory demonstrates the huge interest and concern sparked over the last year about the harm that kids and teens experience online, in part because of our long-time research work and advocacy in the area. The world of technology—of social media, of gaming and AI, of virtual and augmented reality—was designed by adults, for adults. Yet kids are accessing all of these platforms every day, and we have very little idea of how children are actually affected by them. Common Sense started its own research program in 2011 to develop a better understanding of this impact. We've released many reports in the time since, including one on how increased social media use affected youth mental health during the pandemic, and another on how media affects body image. Yet we knew from the start that our research team would not be able to cover everything in this important area, and that more research was needed at a larger scale and scope.

The research conducted through CAMRA will address this gap by diving into how technology use impacts cognitive development, physical health, and mental health for infants, children, and teens over time. In her testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, pediatric researcher and frequent Common Sense collaborator Dr. Jenny Radesky stated, "CAMRA is unique in that it envisions a sustained commitment to this field, which needs to keep up with the rapidly evolving technology around us."

CAMRA's research will shed light on both the positive and negative impacts of technology on kids and teens. Technology has no doubt proven beneficial for kids and teens, especially during the height of the pandemic when students had to turn to remote learning and connect with friends online. But we have seen the harms they can face online too, from being exposed to content that promotes eating disorders and suicidal ideation, to getting harassed, and experiencing social media addiction. By developing a more detailed and nuanced understanding of these benefits and harms from this research, parents and caregivers, policymakers, and industry can determine how technology can be better utilized for good, while preventing and minimizing the harms it imposes on young users. Such research also enables us to look around the corner, learn more about, and prevent additional harm from increasingly popular or emerging technologies such as virtual and augmented reality platforms before they become as commonly used as social media platforms.

We are encouraged by CAMRA's passage, and hope to see more action taken to address kids' and teens' privacy and well-being online this year. It takes a lot of people to get things done in Congress, and we need to thank a terrific coalition of groups and companies that supported us in this effort, as well as our champions in Congress, including Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE), Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD), Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) and Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-FL).

But our work on CAMRA does not end here. Congress has allocated $15 million to NIH this year, but more funding will be needed over the long term. The sooner this research is conducted, the sooner the public will no longer be so in the dark on how technology is affecting our youth and their development and health.

Lana Singer, advocacy project coordinator at Common Sense, contributed to this article.

Irene Ly

Irene Ly is counsel, tech policy at Common Sense. Her work focuses on advocating for privacy and tech policy legislation and regulations at the state and federal level. She is a graduate of American University Washington College of Law.