Parents decide their children's online usage as US lawmakers debate over TikTok

BySamantha Murphy Kelly, CNNWire
Saturday, April 15, 2023
Photo Courtesy of AP

In the future, when teenagers want to sign up for an account on Facebook or Instagram, they may first need to ask their parent or guardian to give their consent to the social media companies.

That, at least, is the vision emerging from a growing number of states introducing - and in some cases passing - legislation intended to protect kids online.

For years, US lawmakers have called for new safeguards to address concerns about social platforms leading younger users down harmful rabbit holes, enabling new forms of bullying and harassment and adding to what's been described as a teen mental health crisis.

Now, in the absence of federal legislation, states are taking action, and raising some alarms in the process. The governors of Arkansas and Utah recently signed controversial bills into law that require social media companies to conduct age verification for all state residents and to obtain consent from guardians for minors before they join a platform. Lawmakers in Connecticut and Ohio are also working to pass similar legislation.

On the surface, providing more guardrails for teens is a step forward that some parents may welcome after years of worrying about the potential harms kids face on social media. But some users, digital rights advocates and child safety experts say the wave of new state legislation risks undermining privacy for teens and adults, puts too much burden on parents and raises serious questions about enforcement.

Jason Kelley, associate director of digital strategy for nonprofit digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, told CNN he worries about government interference where "the state is telling families how to raise their children" and said it could "trample on the rights of every resident."

"Requiring people to get government approval by sharing their private identification before accessing social media will harm everyone's ability to speak out and share information, regardless of their age," he added. "Young people should not be used as pawns to fight big tech, and we are disappointed that first Utah, and now Arkansas, are implementing such overbroad laws."

Privacy concerns

Parents have long worried about privacy risks from their kids using social media, but the state legislation raises a new set of privacy concerns, experts say.

In Arkansas, for example, the law will rely on third-party companies to verify all users' personal information, such as a driver's license or photo ID. (The legislation in Arkansas also appeared to contain vast loopholes and exemptions benefiting companies, such as Google and presumably its subsidiary, YouTube, that lobbied on the bill.)

The impact on privacy is even more stark for teens in some of these states. In addition to requiring parental consent, Utah's law, for example, will give parents access to "content and interactions" on their teens' accounts.

Albert Fox Cahn, founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project and a fellow at the NYU School of Law, said the bills are problematic because users in these states will no longer remain anonymous, which could lead to fewer people of all ages expressing themselves and seeking information online.

He believes teens in the LGBTQ+ community will be most impacted by potentially "outing them to homophobic or transphobic parents and cutting them off from their digital community."

Lucy Ivey, an 18-year-old TikTok influencer who attends Utah Valley University, echoed those concerns.

"With a new law like this, they may now be intimidated and discouraged by the legal hoops required to use social media out of fear of authority or their parents, or fear of losing their privacy at a time when teens are figuring out who they are," Ivey told CNN when the Utah law passed.

A 'backward' approach

Devorah Heitner, author of Screenwise, Speaker: Raising Kids in the Digital Age, argued teens need to learn how to function in online communities because that is the expectation both going into college and in their professional life.

"Keeping them off online communities until, in some cases, when they're finishing their first year of college - but can still have jobs or drive - is backward, if they can't even have an Instagram or a Discord account where their mom isn't reading every message."

Instead, she believes teens need better digital literacy in schools with a heightened social-emotional component.

"Literacy should not just be 'don't look at pornography' or 'stay off bad sites' or 'don't cyberbully;' that's so limited," she said. "It should also be understanding how algorithms work, how teens can respond or what to do when feeling excluded, or if they're feeling insecure. We need to help kids with all these things."

Heitner also said the bills should focus on holding companies more accountable rather than putting the onus on parents to either keep teens off platforms or constantly feel the pressure to police or oversee their activity.

"Not all parents are passionate, kind and supportive of their kids, and even the ones who are don't have the capacity or time to deal with the 24/7 nature of social media," said Heitner. "It's an unfair burden."

Enforcement issues

Given that the bills are unprecedented, it's unclear how exactly social media companies will adapt and enforce it.

Michael Inouye, an analyst at ABI Research, said minors could "steal" identities - such as from family members who don't use social media - to create accounts that they can access and use without oversight. VPNs could also complicate matching IP addresses to the states of the users, he said.

Facebook-parent Meta previously told CNN it has the same goals as parents and policymakers, but the company said it also wants young people to have safe, positive experiences online and keep its platforms accessible. It did not address how it would comply with the legislation.

In a statement provided to CNN, a TikTok spokesperson said it is "committed to providing a safe and secure platform that supports the well-being of teens, and empowers parents with the tools and controls to safely navigate the digital experience." Representatives from Snap did not respond to a request for comment.

But even if legislative steps from Utah, Arkansas and other states prove to be flawed, Inouye says "these early efforts are at minimum bringing attention to these issues."

Heitner said she is most encouraged by a small but growing number of school districts and families, and one Pennsylvania county, which have filed lawsuits against social media companies for their alleged impact on teen mental health. "These efforts are more productive than putting this on parents," she said.

The Arkansas legislation is expected to take effect in September and Utah's bill aims to be implemented next year. But bills like these could "face years of litigation and injunctions before they ever take effect," Cahn said.

"Hopefully Congress will act before then to implement real protections for all Americans," he said.

CNN contributed to this report.