White House raises alarm on risks of social media for kids

The White House and the U.S. Surgeon General warned on Tuesday that social media poses mental health risks to kids and teens and they called on Congress to pass new laws to protect young people online.

With those risks in mind, the Biden administration also announced the creation of a new task force to study social media and how it affects minors. And a new U.S. Surgeon General report pressed for “urgent action” by policymakers, tech companies, researchers, families and youth to better understand the impact that apps like TikTok, Instagram and YouTube have on kids’ mental health.

The Surgeon General report said that even though social media could provide some benefits, “there are ample indicators that social media can also have a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.”

“President Biden has made tackling the mental health crisis a top priority, and he continues to call on Congress to pass legislation that would strengthen protections for children’s privacy, health and safety online,” the White House said in its announcement. Biden has called for stronger kids’ online safety and privacy laws in his past two State of the Union addresses.

The task force created by the White House would be led by the Department of Health and Human Services and the Commerce Department, and will review existing tech industry efforts to promote health and safety; provide best practices to help guardians protect their kids’ health and safety online; and provide recommendations by the spring of 2024 for the industry to design safer and more privacy-protective products for kids. The White House said it’s taking these actions following a recent CDC study that found the number of young adults with depression more than doubled from 2011 to 2021.

The announcements come on the heels of Arkansas and Utah enacting laws in recent weeks requiring parental consent for teens under age 18 to access apps, even as a bipartisan group of federal lawmakers introduced a similar bill in Congress.

Another bill reintroduced in Congress this session — the Kids Online Safety Act— would mandate that companies build their products with kids safety in mind. And lawmakers have also reintroduced a billCOPPA 2.0 — expanding online privacy protections for kids between the ages of 13 to 16.

Though the bills enjoy bipartisan support, previous efforts to pass them came up short, and hurdles remain given divided control of Congress.

Kids’ safety advocacy groups praised the White House’s actions and called for lawmakers to act.

“We urge Congress to follow the President’s lead in putting the well-being of children ahead of Big Tech’s profits by passing the Kids Online Safety Act and COPPA 2.0,” Josh Golin, executive director of kids advocacy group Fairplay, said in a statement.

Meanwhile, tech groups defended the benefits that social media can provide to young people and the potential privacy risks parental consent laws pose. “As lawmakers debate new digital safeguards, we shouldn’t trade away user privacy by requiring everyone to verify their age, or shut off access to supportive online communities for young people,” Adam Kovacevich, CEO of tech trade group Chamber of Progress, said in a statement.

Chamber of Progress, along with trade groups TechNet and NetChoice, have opposed state laws that require age verification and restrict young people’s access to social media.

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