Technology

Sens. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., conduct a news conference in Capitol.
Tom Williams | CQ-Roll Call, Inc. | Getty Images

Lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee found rare alignment at a recent hearing about how Congress can help protect kids from online harms.

The hearing on Tuesday, which included a parent who lost a child to suicide after cyberbullying, representatives from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and the American Psychological Association, points to the importance the new Congress is putting on protecting kids on the internet.

They’re speaking out in support of the Kids Online Safety Act, which would require sites likely to be accessed by kids 16 or younger to maintain certain privacy and safety protections by default. The bill passed unanimously out of the Senate Commerce Committee last year and was reportedly considered as part of the year-end legislation, though it ultimately didn’t make the cut.

“We must and we will double down on the Kids Online Safety Act,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who co-sponsored the bill with Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., said at the hearing.

Blackburn and Blumenthal both held up a newly released 2021 study on youth risks from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which showed that mental health is worsening. The survey found 20% of girls and 11% of boys reported being bullied online over the past year.

President Joe Biden is putting his voice behind the movement for change. Following remarks he made at last week’s State of the Union address, Biden said at an event Tuesday that, “We have to pass legislation on the damaging technologies having an effect on our kids.”

The level of solidarity on the issue is a rarity in a deeply divided Congress. Though lawmakers have shared similar goals in other discussions around regulating tech, when it comes to protecting kids online, they’re more united in the types of action they want to see take place.

Even so, KOSA and similar measures at the state level have prompted criticism from outside groups, some arguing that the rules would be too difficult to implement in a fair and feasible way.

The groups said last year that vague language requiring platforms to prevent harm to minors could result in restricting too much content, cutting kids off from important information, especially for the LGBTQ community and others who may have limited places to turn. They also warn that some parental consent measures could endanger kids who are experiencing abuse at home.

Evan Greer, director of digital rights advocacy group Fight for the Future, tweeted her displeasure with the legislative efforts on Tuesday.

“I feel outraged that lawmakers like @SenBlumenthal continue to ignore overwhelming opposition from human rights groups and push the same problematic bills we’ve already explained will do more harm than good, and then blames# tech company lobbying when they don’t pass,” Greer wrote.

Blumenthal and Blackburn revised KOSA last year but failed to completely subdue critics.

Mitch Prinstein, chief science officer at the American Psychological Association, said it’s critical to protect kids without cutting them off from useful resources.

“It’s very important to recognize that online discrimination does have an effect on mental health directly,” Prinstein said. “It is important, however, to recognize that the online community also provides vital health information and does provide social support that can be beneficial to this community.”

All six witnesses at Tuesday’s hearing said they support KOSA and see it as an important step toward protecting children on the internet.

‘I think we can do this’

At the end of the hearing, Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin, D-Ill., promised the panelists a markup of legislation on the topic, and said the committee would have to work out questions of jurisdiction with the Commerce Committee.

“That doesn’t sound like much but it is,” Durbin said. “It means that we’re going to come together as a Judiciary Committee and put on the table pieces of legislation to try to decide as a committee if we can agree on common goals.”

Durbin said, “I think we can do this, just sensing what I heard today.”

There’s no shortage of concern in Washington, D.C., and beyond surrounding kids on the internet. U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy recently said that 13, the current age allowed to own a social media account, is “too early” to join such platforms.

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., introduced the MATURE Act (which stands for Making Age Verification Technology Uniform, Robust, and Effective) on Tuesday. The bill would make 16 the legal age to open a social media account and would put the onus on the platforms to stay compliant.

Legislators in Utah also sought to bar social media accounts under age 16. However, a bill that recently passed the state’s House of Representatives removed that provision, instead allowing for consumers to sue social media companies that knowingly cause harm.

The issue of an age limit and its potential effectiveness was a big topic Tuesday.

Rose Bronstein, whose son Nate died by suicide last year at age 15 after being subject to cyberbullying, told CNBC in a phone interview after the hearing that raising the age limit would make it easier for parents to keep their kids off of social media. Their kids wouldn’t risk isolation because their peers also wouldn’t be allowed to join.

Christine McComas said age limits would have a limited impact.

“Kids are always three steps ahead of us with any kind of tech,” said McComas, whose daughter Grace died by suicide at age 15 in 2012 after experiencing cyberbullying. “We need to really keep talking about all of it and think about it as a societal shift.”

Bronstein and McComas have been pushing their state legislatures in Illinois and Maryland, respectively, to pass statewide protections. California has already instituted its Age-Appropriate Design Code, which shares similar goals as KOSA. On Monday, Maryland introduced its own version of the bill.

“I think people are more aware now than they’ve ever been before,” McComas said. “And certainly, it’s not all talk. We heard congressional members on both sides of the aisle, from ultra conservative to liberal liberal, who see the problem and feel like something needs to be done.”

But other advocates say it’s time for more action.

Kristin Bride, who testified at the hearing, lost her son Carson at age 16 to suicide in 2020 after cyberbullying. Bride said she and other parents are sick of seeing legislation on the issue fail to advance.

“It is so difficult to tell our stories of the very worst day of our lives over and over and over again and then not see change,” Bride told lawmakers. “We’re done with the hearings, we’re done with the stories. We are looking to you all for action and I am confident that you can all come together and do this for us and for America’s children.”

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