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A cut-out of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is seen surfing on a wave of cash and surrounded by distressed teenagers during a protest opposite the Houses of Parliament in central London on October 25, 2021. (Photo: Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images)

Big Tech 'Fundamentally At Odds With Children's Well-Being,' Advocates Say

"Now is the time for Congress to act and enact safeguards that protect children and teens," said one advocate.

Kenny Stancil

Calling Big Tech's profit-maximizing business model "fundamentally at odds with children's well-being," a broad coalition of 60 leading advocacy groups working in public health, privacy, and education urged Congress on Tuesday to enact stronger online protections for young people.

"Tech companies are more interested in profiting off of vulnerable children than taking steps to prevent them from getting hurt on their platforms."

In a letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the coalition endorsed President Joe Biden's recent assertion that "we must hold social media platforms accountable for the national experiment they're conducting on our children for profit" and implored lawmakers to safeguard kids' health and safety by passing legislation to improve online privacy and put an end to targeted advertising and discriminatory algorithms aimed at minors.

"It's long past time for Congress to put a check on Big Tech's pervasive manipulation of young people's attention and exploitation of their personal data," Accountable Tech co-founder and executive director Nicole Gill said in a statement.

Josh Golin, executive director at Fairplay, pointed out that "Congress last passed legislation to protect children online 24 years ago—nearly a decade before the most popular social media platforms even existed."

Since then, the letter states, "digital platforms have become vital spaces for learning, socializing, and relaxing."

"Children and teens should be able to engage freely with this environment," the letter continues, "without being manipulated into spending more time online, spending more money, watching ads targeted to their vulnerabilities, surrendering more data, or engaging with content that undermines their well-being."

Instead, according to Katharina Kopp, policy director at the Center for Digital Democracy, young people find themselves "at the epicenter of a pervasive data-driven marketing system that takes advantage of their inherent developmental vulnerabilities."

Golin argued that the failure to meaningfully regulate surveillance advertising and other Big Tech practices "has led to a race to the bottom to collect data and maximize profits, no matter the harm to young people."

As the letter to congressional leaders explains in greater detail:

The current unregulated business model for digital media is fundamentally at odds with children's well-being. Digital platforms are designed to maximize revenue, and design choices that increase engagement and facilitate data collection, all of which put children at risk. Data gathered on young people, which can include information about their race, ethnicity, religion, income, and network of friends, can be used in discriminatory ways that may harm their access to opportunities and services. It is estimated that online advertising firms hold 72 million data points on the average child by the time they reach the age of 13, allowing marketers to target children's vulnerabilities with extreme precision. And algorithms designed to maximize engagement often promote harmful content, often aimed at young people's greatest vulnerabilities, such as their interest in dieting or self-harm.

Excessive use of digital media use and social media is linked to a number of risks for children and adolescents, including obesity, lower psychological well-being, decreased happiness, decreased quality of sleep, depression, and increases in suicide-related outcomes such as suicidal ideation, plans, and attempts. Fifty-nine percent of U.S. teens have reported being bullied on social media, an experience which has been linked to increased risky behaviors such as smoking and increased risk of suicidal ideation.

The pressure to spend more time on digital media platforms and maximize interactions with other users also puts children at risk from predation. Twenty-five percent of nine- to 17-year-olds report having had an online sexually explicit interaction with someone they believed to be an adult.

Digital technologies already played a substantial role in the lives of children and teens before the Covid-19 pandemic, but the situation has been "exacerbated by the dramatic changes to daily life" experienced during the past two years, said Dr. Moira Szilagyi, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

"Pediatricians see the impact of these platforms on our patients and recognize the growing alarm about the role of digital platforms, in particular social media, in contributing to the youth mental health crisis," said Szilagyi. "It has become clear that, from infancy through the teen years, children's well-being is an afterthought in developing digital technologies."

"Strengthening privacy, design, and safety protections for children and adolescents online is one of many needed steps to create healthier environments that are more supportive of their mental health and well-being," she added.

The coalition—composed of a diverse mix of organizations, including Public Citizen, the National Eating Disorders Association, and the Network for Public Education—called on Congress to pass legislation that would:

  • Protect children and teens wherever they are online, not just on "child-directed" sites;
  • Expand privacy protections to all minors;
  • Ban targeted (surveillance) advertising to young people;
  • Prohibit algorithmic discrimination of children and teens;
  • Establish a duty of care that requires digital service providers to both make the best interests of children a primary design consideration, and to prevent and mitigate harms to minors;
  • Require platform to turn on the most protective settings for minors by default; and
  • Provide greater resources for enforcement by the Federal Trade Commission.

Pointing to Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen's October revelations about the ways that social media platforms prioritize profits over the well-being of children, the coalition said the need for congressional action is evident.

"There will never be a better time to pass legislation to protect young people online," states the letter. "Parents from across the political spectrum want Congress to do more to... make children safer, give parents and caregivers peace of mind, and promote an internet that serves children, rather than taking advantage of them."

Justin Ruben, co-founder and co-director of ParentsTogether, stressed that "it's clear tech companies are more interested in profiting off of vulnerable children than taking steps to prevent them from getting hurt on their platforms. American kids are facing a mental health crisis partly fueled by social media and parents are unable to go it alone against these billion-dollar companies."

"Now is the time," Kopp emphasized, "for Congress to act and enact safeguards that protect children and teens."

"It's also long overdue," she added, "for Congress to enact comprehensive legislation that protects parents and other adults from unfair, manipulative, discriminatory, and privacy-invasive commercial surveillance practices."

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