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Thirteen-year-old social media minimum age should be raised, health officials say

Washington Examiner logo Washington Examiner 2/10/2023 Jessica Melugin
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There’s a renewed interest in Congress for passing restrictions on social media access for teenagers after Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s call for government limits beyond the current industry standard of 13 years old.

“None of this is out of our control. When we had dangerous vehicles on the road, we passed laws to make those vehicles less dangerous,” he told CNN in a recent interview. “Thirteen is too early,” said Murthy, surgeon general in the Biden administration after holding the same position for a bit over two years during the presidency of Barack Obama, who nominated him, and for three months into Donald Trump’s White House tenure.


Officials, Murthy added, should “be thoughtful about what’s going into how [teenagers] think about their own self-worth.”

The buzz around mental health consequences for young people online surged with a 2021 Wall Street Journal report, dubbed the “Facebook Files,” based on internal reports and discussions about the issue from within the social media giant. The coverage led to congressional testimony from corporate whistleblower Frances Haugen.

After several false starts to push legislation through Congress, there was a concerted push to enact two bills in the post-election lame-duck session in December. One would have expanded federal privacy protections for children, and the other would have mandated safeguards for their online activity. Both drew significant support, but neither made it into “must-pass” legislation at the end of the session.

But the issue still percolates in Washington policy and political circles. President Joe Biden called for bipartisan congressional action in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece last month, writing, “We must hold social-media companies accountable for the experiment they are running on our children for profit.”

Taylor Barkley, technology and innovation director at the Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University, told the Washington Examiner, “The surgeon general is correct that social media use for some 13-year-olds might not be a good choice. But for others, it might be the right choice and a lifeline to the community.” He warned that legislators need to ensure “that the benefits of social media are not lost for the sake of the risks.”

Trade-offs with expanded safety regulations might include preventing teenagers from finding mental health resources or virtual support systems online, some critics warn.

“Despite the headlines and dominant narratives, a conclusive, causal relationship between social media and negative mental health effects for the typical teen user has not been made. The linkage is correlational at best,” writes Barkley in his recent paper, “What Should Policymakers Do About Social Media and Minors?”

There are political considerations for Murthy and congressional allies in their push for new rules, too. Many people are skeptical of public health directives after COVID-19 lockdowns and flip-flops on recommended protocols, like masking and vaccine mandates. For example, a Pew Research Center survey last year found a 28% decrease in the number of U.S. adults expressing a great deal of confidence in medical scientists to act in the best interests of the public. This may complicate the effort to use government health officials in the effort to crack down on social media providers.

Still, the discussion of rules for children online goes beyond mental health concerns and is hardly new. Washington has for decades been dealing with privacy concerns about the amount of data collected from children and targeted advertising.

Congress enacted the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act in 1998 and tapped the Federal Trade Commission for enforcement. The law puts online products and services aimed at children under 13 under much stricter regulatory scrutiny and requires parental permission. There are current proposals to extend those protections through users’ teenage years.

Those proposals also come with costs. Age verification systems may necessitate that users hand over more of their personal information in sorting children from adults. It also may make it harder for minors to remain anonymous when seeking help online, inadvertently exposing teenagers in crisis to more harm, not less.

Prohibitions and restrictions against targeted advertising to teenagers may face the same hurdles as failed regulatory efforts against advertising to children on television did in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Those alleged harms turned out to be overblown, and the FTC was defunded for a short period as punishment for their attempted overreach, helping earn the agency the nickname the "National Nanny.”

It’s expected that legislation from last session and new proposals will be introduced in both the House and the Senate this year. All of this runs parallel to, and perhaps in competition with, simultaneous efforts to pass a broad federal privacy law for everyone online. That’s something Congress hasn’t been able to do but that many states have been successful in accomplishing on their own.


The other area of concern for minors online is child sexual abuse. This issue enjoys broad agreement from both parties. The material is already illegal and the source of great cooperation among the largest social media platforms with law enforcement. In 2021, more than 29 million reports of suspected child sexual exploitation were reported by online platforms to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Calls for legislative action in this area focus on increasing resources to reduce or eliminate the material altogether.

As for the more controversial mental health aspect of protecting children online, Barkley said, “ultimately, it will be bottom-up solutions from teens and those who care most for them that will ensure maximum benefits and lowest risk when it comes to social media use.”


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Tags: Vivek Murthy, Social Media, Technology, Mental Health, Cybersecurity, Data, Privacy

Original Author: Jessica Melugin

Original Location: Thirteen-year-old social media minimum age should be raised, health officials say


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