Congratulations, TikTok, for managing to unseat Google, Facebook, and Twitter as Congressional Enemy #1. What started as concerns about national security and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) having too much influence over the platform’s algorithmic design and content moderation has morphed into something different. In the March hearing where Shou Zi Chew (TikTok’s CEO) testified in front of Congress, children and teens’ safety, rather than national security, was the focus.
This shift was probably inevitable. The government has not disclosed any specific national security concerns; rather, it has focused on possible misuses the CCP may engage in. If you are interested in banning an app that has 150 million monthly American users, you are going to need to be more specific about national security concerns and give a fair hearing about the variety of remedies.
Over the past 10 years, the Center for Disease Control has noted a forty percent increase in feelings of sadness and hopelessness — as well as suicide ideation — in young people. While the exact cause of this increase is unknown, one common theory links the rate to social media use. The Surgeon General has also issued an advisory against children and teens using social media; but the advisory acknowledges that social media use has benefits, like improving the mental health of LGBTQ+ teens. While it seems like there might be some causal relationship between mental health and social media, skepticism exists about how the relationship works and how substantial the effect is. Instead of waiting for a scientific consensus or working with stakeholders, including teenagers, to craft nuanced and well written laws, legislators have decided to take drastic measures.
Over the past few years, we’ve seen the public and policymakers’ opinions about tech companies change dramatically. This “techlash” has caused much ink to be spilled, but very few proposals to “rein in big tech” have actually made it into law. However, if legislators can show there is a connection between social media use and harm to children, then it may be easier to pass laws regulating those entities. While nothing has yet been passed in Congress, state legislatures have been very active in this space. Some of the first activity we saw was states banning TikTok on government devices and networks – which included college campus networks. Montana went a step further and banned TikTok for everyone. Utah has passed a law requiring parental permission for anyone under the age of 18 to use social media and requires social media to be “turned off” for underage users between 10:30 p.m. – 6:30 a.m. Arkansas passed a similar law that also requires social media companies to verify the ages of users when a person creates an account.
Laws like these are messaged as being a way to return control back to parents — and that reasoning has a certain amount of logic to it. We want individual parents to decide what’s best for their children, and requiring parental consent before a child can sign up seems to give parents more control. As a general policy matter, most people believe that parents know what is best for their children. So what could be the problem with requiring parental consent? Setting aside the technical issues with developing a trustworthy and privacy protective age verification and parental consent system, this logic totally devalues the child’s individual right to access information — particularly older children. While social media is not the only way children can access information, it is a prominent method. Laws like these mean that children will have a harder time coming across new information and encountering different worldviews. The other flaw of this logic is that It assumes the state is just returning rights to the parents, rather than putting its thumb on the scale of how all children in their state should be raised, regardless of how individual parents may want to raise their children.
Unfortunately, there are many opportunistic politicians that are reigniting the culture wars for their political advantage. These politicians are more than willing to legislate for “traditional” values, which they see through a lens of devout white, fundamentalist Christians, as opposed to a democracy focused on pluralism, free expression, free speech, and personal liberty where “traditional” values speech is protected as much as everyone else’s speech. They use their position to impose their belief system on all families — regardless of religion or political beliefs. We have seen state legislatures banning teaching about racism or gender identity and sexuality; restricting gender affirming care for minors; and even banning books with topics that they find distasteful. These bans do not protect parents’ rights to raise their children in a manner they see fit, but rather inhibit it and impose a specific belief system on the rest of us, whether we agree with that belief system or not. These legislatures are wielding the power of the “state” over individual liberty.
But what does TikTok, or social media generally, have to do with any of this? Social media channels, like public education and local libraries, are viewed as the methods through which “liberal indoctrination” occurs. Therefore, in order to stop the spread of these “contagions,” extraordinary measures are required. For example, the Heritage Foundation has publicly stated that they have chosen to support the Kids Online Safety Act because they believe it will keep “children away from trans content” and prevent them from “permanently damaging their bodies.” The implicit assumption in these statements is that children only become trans because they are exposed to trans people. Let me be clear: This assumption is false. However, it doesn’t matter to elected officials who are hell-bent on destroying our pluralist democracy.
Bills regulating social media to protect children’s safety online are not going away. Frankly, most of them are not being proposed in bad faith. Legislators want to do what’s best for children, and social media should not be exempt from regulation that prevents harm. We should be using as many policy levers as possible to make online spaces better and safer for everyone. However, in light of this political reality, bills must be stress tested against the likely possibility that they will be weaponized against the very children we are trying to protect.