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Bipartisan senators predict parents will overcome tech lobby to protect kids online

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii,  Sen. Katie Britt, R- Ala., Sen, Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and Sen, Chris Murphy, D-Conn. are pushing a new bipartisan bill focused on online safety for kids.
Keren Carrión/NPR
Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, Sen. Katie Britt, R- Ala., Sen, Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and Sen, Chris Murphy, D-Conn. are pushing a new bipartisan bill focused on online safety for kids.

The mental-health crisis facing America's teenagers is motivating an unusual group of senators — two progressive Democrats and a pair of conservative Republicans — to join forces.

The Democrats — Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut — and the Republicans — Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Sen. Katie Britt of Alabama — are all parents of young kids or teenagers. They unveiled legislation recently that limits access to social media platforms and restricts the kind of content pushed out to kids.

Britt, a freshman who has two teens, said she's alarmed how viral moments on social media can have negative impacts.

"As I talk to other moms who are trying to deal with this, it tells you the troubling uncertainty that social media brings into children's lives," she said, adding: "Parents wanted tools to be able to talk to their children — and to keep their children safe."

The lawmakers don't agree on much, but they said it was easy to team up on a bill that would help shield kids from harmful content on platforms like Instagram and TikTok.

Murphy conceded there are several proposals on Capitol Hill focused on online safety, but maintained their approach puts parents in the game to make sure their kids' data isn't accessed for dangerous content.

"If the four of us can agree on this ... I think there's real hope that this approach can get to the Senate floor," he said.

Murphy, a father of two sons, said he saw benefits for his own kids connecting online during the pandemic. But he added, "I've also seen the flip side: I've seen amongst my kids' peers how very quickly these algorithms can drive you to dangerous content. ... It doesn't take more than, you know, a few swipes, a lingering eyeball on a harmful video to get more and more and more of that."

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii (left), Sen. Katie Britt, D- Ala., (right), and Chris Murphy, D-Conn. (facing them) discussed their new bill to add new age restrictions and parental consent rules for teens using social media platforms.
/ Keren Carrión/NPR
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Keren Carrión/NPR
Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii (left), Sen. Katie Britt, D-Ala., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., discuss their new bill to add new age restrictions and parental consent rules for teens using social media platforms.

Cotton said these platforms make money off of keeping kids addicted.

"Social media is designed to feed exploitative content and stuff that's going to attract their eyeballs continuously, and in many cases is age inappropriate," he said.

And the Arkansas Republican said this legislation focuses on helping parents gain more control.

"They just want the same same power they have in the real world to extend the digital world," he said.

Schatz said it was surprisingly easy for the four to agree on a bill once they zeroed in on how severe the problem is. He cited statistics showing that more than half of teen girls feel persistent despair, and the spike in mental-health challenges is growing across the board.

What the measure would do

The legislation requires users to be 13 to be able to create accounts on social media platforms. It requires parental consent for kids 13-17, and it bars social media companies from distributing content generated by their algorithms to those under 18.

Schatz stressed "these algorithms are probably more powerful than an adult's brain, but certainly more powerful than a developing child's brain."

He said their business model was to make kids linger: "And they have determined that the way you get a kid to linger on a post or on a social media platform is to upset them, and so their business model is to systematically upset a generation of children for profit."

Some senators pushing other online safety bills raised questions about whether this approach puts more of the onus on parents and less on the tech companies. But Britt argued the numbers speak for themselves.

"The data's data doesn't lie," she said, noting that from 2011 to 2019, the number of teens who felt depression more than doubled, and that 1 in 3 young women in high school has said that she's considered suicide.

"And when you think about that inaction is not an option," she said.

Murphy stressed the ban on the algorithm — the driver of the content — is the fundamental way to attack the problem of harmful images and videos impacting vulnerable teens.

"What's most dangerous is that these algorithms are so powerful, that literally within minutes of logging onto your device and starting to swipe or look at content that is a little bit out of the mainstream, you get deluged with it," he said.

Another key provision of the bill is requiring age verification before kids can create accounts — and setting up a system for parents to approve their kids signing up.

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., joined Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and two other bipartisan cosponsors of new legislation protecting kids online in a discussion with NPR.
/ Keren Carrión/NPR
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Keren Carrión/NPR
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark. (left), joined Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and two other bipartisan cosponsors of new legislation protecting kids online in a discussion with NPR.

Cotton stresses it's flexible and uses technology that companies already use online for other applications. He said tech companies "can use third-party contractors of the kind that, say, the VA currently uses or states as politically diverse as Wyoming and California use," he said, adding, "the important part is they cannot simply continue to use simple check the box attestations or the entry of the birth date, which of course are easily evaded."

Privacy concerns

Some civil liberties groups argue collecting more data from parents about their kids could add to privacy concerns. But Cotton called those arguments "completely specious."

"The data we're talking about here is your birthday, and your parent-child relationship — your birthday stuff many people put online voluntarily or that government agencies at your local, state and federal level all have access to and know and your parent child relationship," he said. "That's it."

Tech companies stress they already have tools in place to police dangerous content for kids.

A spokesperson for Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, told NPR they have over 30 online tools to support efforts to boost parental control and block inappropriate content.

"We refer to research, feedback from parents, teens, experts, and academics to inform our approach, and we'll continue evaluating proposed legislation and working with policymakers on these important issues," the spokesperson told NPR.

Britt noted that having her colleagues at the table was the way to make change happen. "I'm super proud to be sitting together as concerned parents hoping to find solutions," she said.

Congress doesn't have much of a track record passing legislation that regulates or restricts tech companies. Schatz predicted "an army of lobbyists" was poised to oppose their bill. But he also said he thinks the country is at a tipping point.

"I do think this time is different," he said, "because parents and even children are standing up and saying enough is enough."

In the last weeks, two additional bipartisan bills have been introduced in the Senate to boost safety measures for kids online. They take aim at making the social media companies more accountable — through new regulations on data collection, oversight by federal agencies and a ban on advertising. Competing proposals could make it harder for Congress to agree on an approach, and easier for tech companies to block action.

For now these four senators say the more the merrier. With a mounting numbers of lawmakers across the political spectrum involved, they have hope new guardrails can ultimately be put in place.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.