Two bipartisan bills would protect kids and teens from instagram

Associated Press/Matt Rourke

Protecting kids’ online privacy is back at the top of the national agenda. In his 2022 State of the Union address, President Joe Biden called on lawmakers to “strengthen privacy protections, ban targeted advertising to children, [and] demand tech companies stop collecting personal data on our children.”

Then in mid-March, Meta (formerly Facebook) added a set of long-awaited parental controls for Instagram accounts in the U.S. — allowing parents to track and limit their teens’ use of the app, receive updates on who they follow, and get reports for bad behavior. While these commonsense measures are long overdue, they fail to address Instagram’s design features that inflict the greatest harms on young people.

Whistleblower Frances Haugen (a special guest at Biden’s address) leaked a trove of internal documents from Facebook documenting the nature of those features and extent of the harms they cause. Meta knew all along that Instagram exacerbates depression, anxiety, body dysmorphia, and suicidal thoughts among a significant percentage of young users. But increased engagement and ad revenue that boosts corporate profits simply matters more.

With Meta failing to enact meaningful changes, the ball is in Congress’ court to stand up for kids’ safety. Polls show that parents across the political spectrum want Congress to protect children online, and there are two bipartisan bills in the U.S. Senate to do just that.

The Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA) and the Children and Teens’ Online Privacy Protection Act (often called COPPA 2.0) are complimentary bills designed to provide comprehensive protections for vulnerable youth on the internet and tackle the most dangerous aspects of social media head on.

There are three big problems flagged in Haugen’s leaked research that this pair of bills would address.

First, Instagram is designed to keep young people coming back for more, regardless of the consequences. Meta profits from the addictive nature of its products, generating advertising revenue based on viewership and engagement metrics. 

Instagram researchers noted that teens frequently want to spend less time on the app, but lacked the self-control to log off. Young people, “often feel ‘addicted’ and know that what they’re seeing is bad for their mental health but feel unable to stop themselves.” In certain cases, the effects on mental health are life-threatening. “…[A]mong teens who reported suicidal thoughts, 13% of British users and 6% of American users traced the desire to kill themselves to Instagram.”

KOSA would ban some of the most common design features that keep kids hooked. This includes autoplay settings that encourage extended and unhealthy viewing, push alerts that encourage kids to log back on for fear of missing out, and badges that reward high usership. The bill also would require platforms to allow teens to opt out of algorithm-based recommendations that put harmful content in their feeds.

Second, Instagram staff warned Meta executives about the shocking effects of the app on body image. They found that “thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.” Researchers highlighted aspects of the app that fuel distorted body images, which included both the design of the content recommendation algorithm and targeted ads focused on beauty and weight loss.

KOSA would create a legal responsibility for social media platforms to prevent and mitigate harms to minors, including design features that exacerbate body dysmorphia and eating disorders. In addition, COPPA 2.0 would ban all targeted advertising to children, preventing the collection and use of personal data to target their psychological and emotional vulnerabilities with precision.  

And third, new reports have detailed the unique dangers of the Metaverse — including the collection of kid’s sensitive biometric data and a heightened risk of grooming and abuse by sexual predators.

COPPA 2.0 would prohibit the collection of personal information from users who are 13 to 15 years old without consent, and KOSA would require companies to perform an annual independent audit assessing risks to minors — ensuring that new technologies are developed with the safety of kids and teens in mind.

Both of these bills have bipartisan support. KOSA is co-sponsored by Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), while COPPA 2.0 is co-sponsored by Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.). In addition, 60 leading civil rights, privacy, and kids’ safety organizations have endorsed the key provisions of these bills.

There’s a lot of work to do to rein in Big Tech companies — including policies like passing comprehensive privacy legislation and banning dual-class stock structures that enable scandal-plagued executives like Mark Zuckerberg to wield outsized influence and stay in power. But KOSA and COPPA 2.0 would go a long way toward protecting kids online. Let’s not miss the opportunity to send these bills to the president’s desk.

Cheyenne Hunt-Majer is Fellow with Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division.

Tags children and Teens' online privacy protection act facebook whistleblower Joe Biden kosa parental controls Social media

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