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Legislation goes after source of rising mental health illness among children: social media

The Kids Online Safety Act would promote privacy and give children and parents more online autonomy.

U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner of Virginia and 27 colleagues introduced the legislation to make social media safer for children.

“Experts are clear: kids and teens are growing up in a toxic and unregulated social media landscape that promotes bullying, eating disorders and mental health struggles,” Warner, a former technology entrepreneur, said. “The Kids Online Safety Act would give kids and parents the long-overdue ability to control some of the least transparent and most damaging aspects of social media, creating a safer and more humane online environment.”

The legislation would provide young people and parents with the tools, safeguards and transparency they need to protect against online harms, and requires social media platforms to by default enable a range of protections against addictive design and algorithmic recommendations. The bill also requires privacy protections, dedicated channels to report harm and independent audits by experts and academic researchers to ensure that social media platforms are taking meaningful steps to address risks to kids.

Reports show that social media companies have proof that their platforms contribute to mental health issues in children and teens, and that young people have demonstrated a precipitous rise in mental health crises over the last decade.

The Kids Online Safety Act would:

  • Require that social media platforms provide minors with options to protect their information, disable addictive product features, and opt out of algorithmic recommendations. Platforms would be required to enable the strongest settings by default.
  • Give parents new controls to help support their children and identify harmful behaviors, and provides parents and children with a dedicated channel to report harms to kids to the platform.
  • Create a responsibility for social media platforms to prevent and mitigate harms to minors, such as promotion of suicide, eating disorders, substance abuse, sexual exploitation, and unlawful products for minors (e.g. gambling and alcohol).
  • Require social media platforms to perform an annual independent audit that assesses the risks to minors, their compliance with this legislation, and whether the platform is taking meaningful steps to prevent those harms.
  • Provide academic and public interest organizations with access to critical datasets from social media platforms to foster research regarding harms to the safety and well-being of minors.

Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca J. Barnabi is the national editor of Augusta Free Press. A graduate of the University of Mary Washington, she began her journalism career at The Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star. In 2013, she was awarded first place for feature writing in the Maryland, Delaware, District of Columbia Awards Program, and was honored by the Virginia School Boards Association’s 2019 Media Honor Roll Program for her coverage of Waynesboro Schools. Her background in newspapers includes writing about features, local government, education and the arts.