A newly introduced bipartisan ban on social media allowing users under the age of 13 without parental consent introduced in the Senate comes complete with a rider requiring the Secretary of Commerce to create a digital identification framework.
The bill is titled the Protecting Kids on Social Media Act and introduced with the support of four United States Senators: Brian Schatz (D-HI), Chris Murphy (D-CT), Tom Cotton (R-AR), and Katie Britt (R-AK) and was announced on April 26.
The text of the Act is relatively innocuous. In verifying a user’s age, the bill will require social media platforms to “take reasonable steps beyond merely requiring attestation” to ensure the age of users is over 13 or obtain parental consent.
However, the legislation will exclude existing accounts that were formed within 90 days of the passing of the law from age verification, but only for a period of two years.
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Under the Act, all newly-created social media accounts will be subject to age verification.
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Comments in the announcement by the Senators were hard-nosed on the impacts of social media on the youngest demographic. Sen. Schatz said, “The growing evidence is clear: social media is making kids more depressed and wreaking havoc on their mental health.”
Senator Cotton stated, “From bullying and sex trafficking to addiction and explicit content, social media companies subject children and teens to a wide variety of content that can hurt them, emotionally and physically.”
Cotton added that the legislation “will put parents back in control of what their kids experience online.”
Platforms will also be required to not use algorithms to recommend content to any user under the age of 18.
Digital ID ‘Pilot Program’
The primary concern for proponents of online anonymity is that the only way to ensure users 13-and-under are prevented from having accounts without consent is to require all users to go through something of a Know Your Client process.
The text of the Act as submitted expressly prohibits social media companies from using data and consent collected “for any other purpose” besides age verification and prevents the platforms from retaining content for any reason beyond servicing the account or proving compliance.
But included 9 pages into the Act is a requirement that the Secretary of Commerce “shall establish a pilot program” within 2 years “for providing a secure digital identification credential to individuals who are citizens and lawful residents of the United States at no cost to the individual.”
Authors of the act shorthand this project as the “Pilot Program” and elaborates that Americans will soon be required to verify their age and parental consent “by uploading copies of government-issued and other forms of identification” or through validating already existing information that exists with the DMV, the IRS, or other institutions.
Users will “obtain a secure digital identification credential that they may use to verify their age or parent or guardian relationship with enrolled social media platforms,” the text states.
The platform appears to reside with the government, the text states, noting that users will be able to choose which data they provide to social media platforms “without sharing copies of the underlying verification documents.”
But the text at present also caveats development must contain features allowing Americans to disable or delete their digital ID and keep no records of what social media platforms have been verified through the service.
Although at present platforms such as Instagram and TikTok, owned by ByteDance, a company that operates in mainland China under the Communist Party’s jurisdiction, require users to be 13 or older, account creation relies on a self-reporting system.
In March, corporate accountability group Eko used a series of bots to create accounts on TikTok identifying as 13-years-old in order to ascertain what kind of content the ByteDance algorithm curated to users.
Eko discovered the app is “highly precise in tracking a users’ actions, swipes, and movements, including factors such as likes, comments, and time spent watching content to calibrate its algorithm and funnel content to users through its For You Page.”
Results were that Eko’s 13-year-old bot accounts were curated with “a network of harmful suicide, incel, and drug content easily accessible to a 13-year-old account, some of which can be found in as little as three clicks.”
Age verification legislation is already in play below the federal level. In Utah, starting in March of 2024, platforms will be required to verify the age of accounts created in the state and are required to prohibit access to those under 18 without parental consent.
Utah’s legislation will also require parents to be given full access to their children’s accounts and block access between the hours of 10:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m., according to a State website.
In February, similar legislation was put forth in the House of Representatives by Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT), which seeks to prevent social media companies from servicing children under 16 without parental consent.
Stewart’s bill, however, does not contain a rider requiring the Secretary of Commerce to create a federal digital ID pilot project.
Youth are a lucrative demographic for social media platforms. A 2021 article by The Wall Street Journal relying on leaked internal documentation from Facebook, which has since renamed as Meta, showed one piece of company literature titled Tweens Competitive Audit as asking, “Why do we care about tweens?”
“They are a valuable but untapped audience,” it answered.
A screenshot of a presentation in the article quoted a 10-year-old boy from Detroit as appearing to state that if age verification were required, “I don’t think that I would use it…that’s just me.”
“I would have to get [my mom’s] permission to [connect with my friends] and everyone would make fun of me,” the boy continued.
A 2018 document marked “confidential” by the company stated, “With the ubiquity of tablets and phones, kids are getting on the internet as young as six years old. We can’t ignore this and we have a responsibility to figure it out.”
“Our ultimate goal is messaging primacy with U.S. tweens, which may also lead to winning with teens,” a third document stated.