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Will Congress and Tech Leaders Step Up to Help Keep Kids Safe Online?

Kids need better protection today and beyond the pandemic.

In the wake of a tumultuous election and a yearlong pandemic, congressional leaders are examining with renewed focus the role technology plays in our society. This week, leaders from Facebook, Google, and Twitter testified before Congress about misinformation and disinformation on their platforms. Earlier this month, Common Sense was honored to be part of another important tech hearing, before the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce, examining the risks kids face from increased time online during the coronavirus pandemic, and to offer up policy solutions to improve the digital landscape for kids and families. There are roles for both Congress and technology company leaders to play in improving the digital landscape for all of us -- starting now.

It might once have been debatable whether kids could "choose" to be online, but it's now clear there's no choice: Online access is necessary to connect with family, to learn, and to play. Common Sense research shows device ownership already was the norm for young children pre-pandemic, and screen time had multiplied in recent years, with children in lower-income homes spending nearly two hours more daily with screens. Plus, parents are increasingly concerned about the time their kids are spending on screens. Recent surveys found that White and Hispanic parents' top child health concerns in 2020 were: overuse of social media, bullying/cyberbullying, and internet safety. Black parents named overuse of social media in their top three, after racism and COVID.

Kids are on the front lines of our online world and are uniquely vulnerable to digital harms. While the impact of social media and screen time on kids continues to be extremely nuanced -- and it is critical that we fund independent research to find out more -- we already know we need to act. We know that:

  • Kids have been spending even more time online during the pandemic.
  • Research shows that the percentage of teens who say they "often'' see racist content in social media has nearly doubled in the past two years.

  • Many young people are impulsive and prone to oversharing.

  • Many young people don't understand that data shared on an app doesn't remain on their device, let alone grasp online data ecosystems.
  • Young people are uniquely susceptible to advertising and other online persuasion.

The reality is, kids are no match for tech companies, who've grown unchecked and remain unaccountable -- too many are manipulating children, misusing their personal information, and exposing kids to harm.

The pandemic has exacerbated these risks; it did not create them. And these risks and harms will persist after the pandemic is over unless Congress moves to hold tech companies accountable, and until these companies act to take concrete and verifiable steps to protect kids and our democracy.

So, what should tech leaders do?

While we need Congress to step up, there is much the tech industry can do right now to help make their products healthier for kids and families. For example, they can minimize information collection and promote quality content for kids with simple changes to their algorithms. These and other available steps could do wonders for kids' experience online.

And what about leaders in Congress?

We've been tracking legislative proposals before Congress and will continue to champion tech policy solutions that put kids front and center. From comprehensive privacy laws, with special protections for children and teens, to prohibiting behavioral marketing to kids, there's lots of opportunity to update and expand many existing laws to better protect kids' privacy online. And more safeguards that would encourage kid-healthy content and design -- like banning autoplay and amplification of harmful content -- could have a profound impact on the ability of families to harness the enormous benefits of media and technology without exposing kids to as much harm.

Kids deserve better online protections. And given this week's hearing with tech CEOs, we are hopeful Congressional leaders--with or without companies-- will make that happen.

Want to learn more about what we had to say to Congress? Check out our March 11, 2021, written testimony before the United States House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce.

Ariel Fox Johnson
Ariel Fox Johnson is Senior Counsel for Global Policy at Common Sense Media, where she advocates for smart practices, policies, and rules to help all kids thrive in today’s wired world. Her work focuses on enhancing family privacy rights, strengthening students' educational privacy, and promoting robust consumer protections in the online world. She frequently advises policymakers, industry, and tech experts, and has helped develop laws on student privacy, consumer privacy, and the Internet of Things. Ariel is a graduate of Harvard College and Law School. Prior to joining Common Sense, Ariel worked on privacy, media, intellectual property, and technology matters at corporate law firms, and provided pro bono assistance to nonprofits and asylum seekers.