Congress Is Closer Than Ever to Reining in Social Media

From a story on politico.com by Ruth Reader and Ben Leonard headlined “Congress is closer than ever to reining in social media”:

The fallout from Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen’s explosive testimony about social media’s threat to children before the Senate Commerce Committee last fall is coming into focus.

There’s bipartisan support in Congress to ban targeted ads aimed at kids under 16, require tech firms to establish default safety tools to protect children online and give parents more control over their children’s web surfing.

The Commerce Committee last week advanced for floor consideration two bills: It approved the Children and Teens’ Online Privacy Protection Act on a voice vote and the Kids Online Safety Act by a unanimous 28-0.

Haugen had shared internal documents revealing that Facebook knows its Instagram photo-sharing platform can be addictive to teens and has likely led to increased rates of eating disorders and depression.

Facebook has been asking for years to be regulated, and the company certainly has the resources to keep up with new rules. It has also been building out parental tools and reminders that nudge teens to take a break or switch topics.

But a consensus is forming that Haugen was on to something.

“Using principles from behavioral psychology, algorithm and tech companies are finding ways to keep kids and teens engaged for longer periods,” Nusheen Ameenuddin, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Communications and Media, said. “They are feeding them more content … based on their clicks, their preferences — all of these things that really they have no control over.”

The Children and Teens’ Online Privacy Protection Act, co-sponsored by unlikely allies Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.), is an update to the 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act and extends existing privacy protections for preteens to children up to age 16 and bans ads targeting them. It would also give kids and their parents the right to review and delete information that online platforms have collected about them. The bill would put the Federal Trade Commission in charge of enforcement and calls for a Youth Privacy and Marketing Division at the agency that would assess how well it’s ensuring child safety online.

The Kids Online Safety Act, co-sponsored by another unusual pair, Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), would require social media platforms to allow kids and their parents to opt out of content algorithms that have fed them harmful content and disable addictive product features. The bill limits collection of kids’ data, offers controls to parents and kids over their online experience and restricts who can contact a child on social media. It also calls for audits and independent research to identify potential harms.

Mitch Prinstein, chief science officer at the American Psychological Association, said the bill is a good jumping-off point for a larger discussion about how kids should interact with social media. “There’s emergent evidence to suggest that the longer they’re on, the more it is changing the structure and function of their brain development.”

But Congress must still agree on the details and resolve turf battles before a new law can be passed.

During the Commerce panel’s markup, the ranking Republican, Roger Wicker of Mississippi, said he prefers a bill the House Energy and Commerce Committee approved by a 53-2 vote last month that would tackle the data-privacy issue more broadly, covering adults as well as children. But that bill would preempt existing state rules, like California’s consumer privacy law, prompting opposition.

Ruth Reader is a reporter at POLITICO covering the intersection of health care and technology. Before joining POLITICO, she worked at Fast Company, where she spent six years as a reporter covering tech companies and startups.

Ben Leonard is a health technology reporter at POLITICO, covering digital health action from D.C. at agencies, in Congress and in the White House, as well as the industry at large. He previously covered breaking news for POLITICO as an intern and has reported for NBC News, the Baltimore Sun and the Tampa Bay Times.

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