This week, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy released a long-overdue message warning Americans about what they already know: social media harms children. However, perusing the 19-page guide, the Surgeon General’s solutions appear potentially more dangerous than these pariah platforms themselves. He’s pushing for grossly misguided policies that many state legislatures and regulators have already passed, a mistake that robs the little bit of privacy in the threatens to wipe out the internet that we still have. To protect children from social media, platforms and lawmakers must enforce minimum age requirements, he argues. This is tantamount to an identification requirement in order to be able to go online.
Thirty years ago this July, an iconic New York cartoon quipped, “No one on the internet knows you’re a dog.” It was a tongue-in-cheek comment on the then-novelty of anonymity that seemed to define digital spaces. Online you could create a construct, someone who would navigate the internet as you wanted to be seen and not as you really were. Of course, modern social media often offers only a fraction of the invisibility that users once found with early text-based bulletin board services, but there are myriad online communities where anonymity not only endures but is essential.
Anonymity has allowed so many of us, including teenagers, to connect and find community, especially when we live in places where it is difficult to find personal support. It is a lifeline for LQBTQ children who face homophobia and fear homelessness or violence when their parents find out who they are. It can provide a safe way for undocumented migrants and ex-prisoners to engage in social life, even if they face retaliation from law enforcement. And digital platforms are increasingly the only way for pregnant people in anti-abortion states to find out how to get the care they need, whether it’s in the mail or traveling across state lines. For more and more Americans, secure, anonymous internet platforms are the only way to hide from those who would stalk them or even arrest them just for who they are.
Of course, the surgeon general and state legislatures aren’t intentionally trying to sabotage these aspects of online life, but that’s the inevitable consequence of their handling of the social media threat. The Surgeon General’s recommendation calls on platforms to strengthen and enforce minimum age limits, and calls on policymakers to develop special requirements for youth on social media, including everything from limiting harmful content to stricter age enforcement technologies. But the Surgeon General never says what magical technology could prove a user’s age without destroying all of our privacy.
If you look at the states that already require proof of age to access a particular website or set up an online account, the situation is grim. One of the easiest ways to verify age is to require users to produce government-issued ID in order to access a particular service. This should worry anyone who claims to want to protect younger users. For example, if a government-issued ID is required to access The New York Times or create a Wikipedia account, millions of Americans without an ID are unable to take advantage of these sites. Worse still, those with ID will associate their legal name with everything they do online. And it’s not just for teenagers. The only way to identify juvenile users is to capture every user of any age at every login. This paper trail will make it easier than ever for police and other law enforcement agencies to search our online histories.
Alternatively, websites in some states may allow users to enter their credit card information to verify their age. But this is easily circumvented (as any child who has ever used a parent card knows). Worse still, it blocks unbanked adults from online services. In an even scarier development, some platforms have proposed using AI to guess a user’s age from a photo of their face or an analysis of their browsing history. However, these error-prone strategies are likely to result in sites being sued when they inevitably misjudge users’ ages.
It’s simple: the surgeon general and lawmakers can focus their work on protecting the privacy and mental health of all users, including children, or they can continue to push misguided laws that put children at risk. But whichever path they choose, the truth is that magical age-determination technologies will remain a fantasy for everyone, and the price of limiting digital anonymity is all too great a threat.
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