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A phone displaying popular social media apps. (Photo: Flickr/cc)

Our Kids Deserve Better: It's Time to Regulate Facebook

Children are uniquely vulnerable online, and our laws must reflect that with unique protections for kids.

Ed Markey

 by MassLive

From the moment kids log onto Instagram for the first time, the app is collecting information about their interests, habits, and identity. Powerful online platforms gobble up this data and use it to pump toxic, attention-grabbing content to screens—with full knowledge of the vulnerabilities of children and teens. This pernicious Big Tech business model of targeting kids early, according to its own research, leads to depression, body-image issues, and even suicidal thoughts.

Every day, kids are shown pictures of perfect bodies and weight loss ads. They are exposed to content featuring vaping and alcohol. They are stacked up against their peers in an online popularity contest to see who can receive the most "likes" or followers. Every day, young people spend hours on platforms that commodify their online identity and monetize their data.

I'm leading the fight to stop Big Tech from tracking children and teens, to safeguard our kids from dangerous content, and to fund research on how social media impacts kids' mental health.

That toxicity isn't a byproduct—it's how tech platforms make money. When profits come at the cost of our kids' well-being and safety, Congress must intervene. I'm leading the fight to stop Big Tech from tracking children and teens, to safeguard our kids from dangerous content, and to fund research on how social media impacts kids' mental health.

Children are uniquely vulnerable online, and our laws must reflect that with unique protections for kids. Regulation works. More than twenty years ago, I successfully passed the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which has since been used by the Federal Trade Commission to regulate tech companies and the way they interact with children. It's one reason Facebook hasn't officially permitted kids aged 12 and under onto its platform.

COPPA, however, was passed before the age of social media and smartphones—the "Before Facebook" era. Today's internet features instantaneous streaming, shopping, and socializing, primarily on mobile devices that are ubiquitous. The internet is oxygen for children—they can't live without it. And as the internet expands into every area of our lives, we must also enhance regulations to meet the moment—especially when it comes to our kids.

I introduced the bipartisan Children and Teens' Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA 2.0, which would put on the books an updated children's privacy bill of rights, building off existing successful COPPA protections and extending them to teenagers ages 15 and under. My bipartisan bill bans targeted advertising towards kids, and provides parents with an online "eraser" button to give them the ability to delete the information companies have collected about their kids. Until we enact a new law to protect children and teens' privacy online, Big Tech will continue to track young people at every turn online.

But we also must protect our children from the platforms' harmful design features, manipulative marketing, and dangerous content. My Kids Internet Design and Safety (KIDS) Act, bans features like auto play and push notifications that incentivize kids to spend endless time on their devices. It would ban quantified popularity—such as the number of "likes" a photo may accrue—for kids, so that they aren't thrust into online popularity contests in a digital school cafeteria. It would also get rid of manipulative "influencer" marketing and harmful algorithms that direct kids to inappropriate content.

Kids live in a gauntlet of threats to their wellbeing online, and it's no wonder Facebook's internal research shows the negative impacts of these platforms on teens' mental health. But we can't rely on leaked documents to get a full understanding of the toll today's online ecosystem is having on our children and teens' psychological, physical and emotional development. That's why I have introduced the bipartisan Children and Media Research Advancement, or CAMRA Act, to fund a five-year, $95 million National Institutes of Health research initiative on the impacts of social media on children and teens. It's time parents have more evidence-based understanding of how technology is affecting young people's brains, bodies, and behaviors.

As the world joins in a global digital commons, we must create a bold regulatory framework that protects our children first and foremost. I am confident we will take steps to do so this Congress.

Ed Markey

Senator Edward J. Markey is a Democrat representing Massachusetts in the U.S. Senate. Follow him on Twitter: @SenMarkey

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