Big Tech and America’s parents want different things for our kids. A new report released jointly by the Institute for Family Studies (IFS) and the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC) last week — titled “Five Pro-Family Priorities for the 118th Congress and Beyond” — makes this undeniably clear .
In a YouGov poll of more than 2,500 American adults on a variety of family policy preferences, EPPC colleague Patrick T. Brown found that 80 percent of parents support requiring parental permission before a minor makes a social media link. account opened. That’s a huge number, but just a tad bigger than the 77 percent that support giving parents admin-level access to what their kids see and do online.
Both proposals have strong support from parents across the political spectrum — Democrats, Republicans and independents. From a purely electoral perspective, a winning theme is that legislators are issuing policies that strengthen parental authority over their children’s use of social media.
Even putting the popularity of these proposals aside, lawmakers must act in the best interests of American children, to protect them from the unprecedented grip that giant tech companies have on their brains – a grip that has produced little but catastrophe. America’s teens are suffering, and as this report shows, their parents are crying out for help.
On Monday, February 13th, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a shocking report. It turns out that, as The New York Times put it, “nearly three in five teenage girls experienced persistent sadness in 2021 … and one in three girls seriously considered attempting suicide.” While there are many factors that contribute to Contributing to this teen mental health crisis, it’s no secret that addiction to smartphones and social media is a major contributor. How much worse does it have to get before lawmakers stand up and say enough is enough?
GLASTONBURY, UNITED KINGDOM – JANUARY 07: In this photo illustration the logo of US online social media and social networking service Twitter (C) seen on a smartphone screen on January 07, 2023 in Glastonbury, England displayed. Based in San Francisco, California, Twitter was founded in March 2006. In October 2022, entrepreneur Elon Musk acquired Twitter for an alleged $44 billion and gained control of the platform. On December 20, 2022, after much controversy, Musk announced that he would step down as CEO once a replacement was found.Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Fortunately, across the country there is a growing movement of elected officials looking for creative ways to protect children online, keep teens away from the internet’s harshest content, and give parents more control over what their children see and do online.
In Louisiana, for example, the state legislature recently passed a law requiring users to prove they are over the age of 18 in order to access pornographic websites. Libertarians are in turmoil. But that shouldn’t deter Louisiana, as the IFS/EPPC report finds that parents are overwhelmingly on the side of the state. In fact, 86 percent of parents agree that “it’s too easy for kids to find sexually explicit material online.” The law’s effectiveness was initially limited as those who insist on keeping access to porn exposed its weaknesses and loopholes. But follow-up legislation could close the gaps, provided the political will persists.
In Utah, Gov. Spencer Cox has targeted big tech head-on, saying in January he wants to sign legislation giving parents greater control over their teens’ social media accounts, including by requiring age verification. “We’re bringing this to your attention,” he said to a crowded room with representatives from Meta (Facebook’s parent company) in the audience. “You have a few options. You can fight and that’s okay. We are ready for battle. Or you can join us and be part of the solution.”
Governor Cox’s strong words are warranted and welcome, but as you can imagine, Big Tech chose to fight. Though a powerful bill passed cleanly through the committee that would have banned social media use by children under 16 and required Big Tech to verify the age of its users, under pressure from NetChoice – a lobbying firm representing Meta, Google, TikTok , Twitter and other online giants – the version that eventually passed the Utah House was watered down, without both provisions. The final bill instead includes a parental consent requirement to allow minors to create online accounts and a private right of action designed to make it easier for parents to sue Big Tech for social media-related harm.
Parental consent and a private right of action are good moves, but the bottom line is that without more robust preventative regulations, this is a win for Big Tech. Their business model is based on getting access to children while they are young and getting them hooked so they can be molded into willing consumers who are endlessly bombarded with ads. These companies are in a race to the bottom. The threat of some intrepid Utah families who find the time and means to sue, even if successful, would do little to jeopardize their bottom line. It will be a major hurdle for parents to collect sufficient evidence of harm caused by social media in order to bring a successful lawsuit.
There is still time for Utah to take a stronger stance as the bill is still under review in the state Senate. The governor wants it, parents want it, and teenagers desperately need it. The only thing standing in the way of legislators – aside from the slippery, reassuring whispers of lobbyists – is a lack of will. Hopefully these poll results can help steel their backs and give them the courage they need to revise the bill. Other states should follow in Utah’s bold footsteps by embracing big tech for the benefit of the next generation of Americans. America’s parents need and want your help.
Michael Toscano is the executive director of the Institute for Family Studies. Clare Morell is a Policy Analyst at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where she works on the Technology and Human Flourishing Project. She worked in the White House Office and the Justice Department during the Trump administration.
The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own.