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According to an old English proverb, children are meant to be seen and not heard. But if we aren’t careful with new online-safety legislation, kids will be neither seen nor heard in online spaces.
There has been no shortage of stories in recent months focusing on the real harms associated with teens on social media, which the platforms have already invested in mitigating in response to market demand from parents, advertisers and teens themselves. Far less attention has been paid to the benefits that teens today enjoy in terms of increased connections and access to information that was previously unimaginable in an offline world.
While the law should make sure that social-media platforms are accountable for the harms they might cause, new federal legislation intended to protect kids online could backfire by yielding a world where teen access to social-media platforms is effectively eliminated altogether.
In recent weeks, Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) have reintroduced the Kids Online Safety Act, while Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.) reintroduced their Children and Teens’ Online Privacy Protection Act. We have also seen the introduction of the Protecting Kids on Social Media Act, from Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) The bills differ in various ways, but the net outcome of all this legislative output will be less online content available for those kids, as online platforms are pushed to invest more in excluding them from participating and less in creating safe and vibrant spaces for them to thrive.
The Blumenthal-Blackburn bill establishes a duty of care that would require covered platforms to “act in the best interests of a user that the platform knows or reasonably should know is a minor” by acting to prevent various potential harms, including addiction, online bullying and harassment, sexual exploitation and abuse, promotion of narcotics, tobacco, gambling, or alcohol, and predatory, unfair, or deceptive business practices. In order to comply, platforms would need to verify users’ ages in order to curate their online experience.
The Schatz-Cotton legislation makes age-verification requirements explicit, mandating that social-media companies verify the ages of everyone who uses their platform, bans all users under 13 years of age, and requires parental consent for kids between the ages of 13 and 17. The bill would also ban targeted advertising to minors. The Markey-Cassidy bill would similarly ban targeted advertising to teens, while also requiring verifiable consent to collect personal information if the platforms are “reasonably likely” to be used by children or teens.
Each of these bills would vastly increase the cost to serve content to teens, while reducing the already-limited revenue that teen users generate, given that they generally lack both disposable income and payment cards. The question many platforms will begin to ask if the measures become law is whether it is worthwhile to serve teens at all.
The Blumenthal-Blackburn bill’s duty-of-care requirement, for instance, would penalize platforms that fail to prevent and mitigate harms to minors. While the bill doesn’t ban targeted advertising, it does impose heightened notification requirements. The other two bills would ban targeted advertising to kids altogether. Combining higher regulatory costs with lower potential revenues makes serving teens a losing proposition.
A recent study on the effects of the YouTube settlement with the Federal Trade Commission under the original Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) illustrates the tradeoffs when revenue from targeted advertising is restricted. The study found that “child-directed content creators produce 13% less content and pivot towards producing non-child-directed content” and that “views of child-directed channels fall by 22%.” There is a lesson here for sponsors of the new bills: when revenue is restricted, there will be less available content for the “protected” class.
Major social-media platforms already respond to market demand by investing in the creation of safe and vibrant spaces for teens. The proposed bills will upset this balance, both by increasing the cost to serve teens and by reducing ad-generated revenue. The predictable economic consequence will be that online platforms will invest more in excluding teens and less in serving them.
Ben Sperry is a senior scholar with the International Center for Law & Economics.
Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act
Kids Online Safety Act
Protecting Kids on Social Media Act
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