Since whistle blower Francis Haugen leaked documents revealing how Instagram harms teenage girls, lawmakers have scrambled to respond. Recently, Senators Marsha Blackburn (R., Tenn.) and Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.) introduced the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA).
Among the bill’s various features, KOSA aims to protect online users, ages 16 and younger, in two key ways: first, by giving platforms the power to prevent and mitigate potentially harmful content, and second, by forcing platforms to create accessible, user-friendly safeguards and parental controls.
In particular, it aims to address “physical, emotional, developmental, or material” threats that social mediapose to minors. This includes content that promotes self-harm and eating disorders, online bullying, harassment, sexual exploitation, the marketing of products that are illegal for minors, and more.
These are real problems. But as scholars Clare Morrell and Patrick Brown of the Ethics and Public Policy Center have noted, the devil is in the details. In this case, he’s hiding in the bill’s broad language and cheering the new powers it would grant to Big Tech platforms.
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Gender Ideology Gets a Pass
For example, the bill’s list of online harms has a glaring omission: gender ideology. It spreads on social media like the Omicron variant but is far more dangerous for kids and teens.
Take the case of Keira Bell, the young woman who sued the United Kingdom’s National Health Service for fast-tracking her and other teens’ “gender transitions.” As a minor, Keira was put on puberty blockers and received cross-sex hormone therapy. At age 22, after having her breasts surgically removed, Keira found that her “transition” had failed to resolve her psychological distress about her womanhood. It also left her body irreversibly damaged.
Guess where Bell discovered the notion of “transgender identity” and “gender transition”? Not in the classroom or a counseling office, but on the Internet.
Recent research suggests that this holds for most kids who transition. According to one study, transitioners most often reported YouTube videos (48 percent) and Tumblr (45 percent) as sources of encouragement in starting the process. Another studyfound that 65 percent of those who have transitioned were spirited along by online groups, forums, and social media.
With social-media and smartphone usage skewing younger and younger, the threat of falling prey to “gender-affirming” propaganda is greater than ever. As of 2019, 41 percent of all eight- to twelve-year-old Americans owned smartphones. Almost 70 percent owned a smartphone by age 12. Eighty-two percent of those ages 13 to 17—and 31 percent of those between eight and twelve—had used social media at some point.
Social-media platforms are known spreaders of social contagion that can do real harm to kids’ minds and, ultimately, their bodies. Any bill aimed at protecting kids online should do something to slow its spread. Yet KOSA ignores this problem altogether.
Empowering Platforms, Not Parents
Another major flaw in the bill is that it ignores the fact that social-media platforms profit from promoting these ideas. Given that reality, it’s doubtful that they can be expected to judge impartially what content does and does not harm kids.
The bill rightfully places the onus on social-media platforms to create user-friendly safeguards and parental controls. It’s wrong, however, to deputize platforms as content police—especially when vague language would allow them to censor content based on their woke preferences.
As written, KOSA requires platforms to prevent and mitigate online “harassment,” “bullying,” and the promotion of “other matters that pose a risk to physical and mental health of a minor.” Yet nowhere are these terms defined.
This is a huge problem. Such vague terms allow platforms to go beyond just blocking content illegal to minors. Without clear definitions, there’s nothing to stop a platform from banning or boosting content in the name of “mental health” or “anti-bullying efforts.”
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Again, just think how this might go when it comes to gender ideology. Groups such as the American Psychiatric Association claim that helping kids socially and medically transition is crucial for “mental health.” And allied gender activists denounce as “conversion therapy” efforts to help teens become comfortable with their sexed bodies (which we know happens for most teens—as long as they’re not put on the fast track to “transition”).
Given their ideological sympathies, however, many Big Tech companies could boost the gender-activist line and suppress alternatives grounded in sound science. Indeed, they could, and likely would, promote gender transition despite the damage it does to teens.
User-friendly safeguards and controls may be one step in the right direction. But giving more power to social-media platforms is two steps in the opposite direction.
Good intentions aren’t enough. Kids and their parents need legislation that can serve as more than a bipartisan talking point. If lawmakers really want to protect kids from online harms, they should pursue policies that empower parents and hold Big Tech more accountable.
This piece originally appeared in The National Review