US Senate bill aims to enforce social media ban on under-13s

Most social media platforms require users to be at least 13 years old, but backing this up with verification is another matter – millions of kids use Facebook or TikTok freely. Now, a bipartisan group of US senators is trying to insert the government into the process.

Facebook, for instance, says you have to be 13 if you want to create an account on the network. It adds that lying about your age is a violation of the network’s terms – Facebook wants to police explicit content and prevent bullying and grooming.

But the platform’s representatives have admitted there’s almost nothing they can do to stop minors setting up profiles, because there simply is no clear verification system in place.

A federal bill, unveiled and proposed in the US Senate on Wednesday, would enshrine the national minimum age for social media use in law if passed. Older children would be affected too: tech firms would be required to get parental consent before creating accounts for teenagers.

Specifically, the new measure, known as the Protecting Kids on Social Media Act, would ban children under 13 from creating accounts on social media apps. Besides that, it would significantly curtail the algorithms tech companies deploy to children between 13 and 17.

The architect of the bill is Brian Schatz, a Democratic senator from Hawaii. He’s joined by another Democrat, senator Chris Murphy from Connecticut, Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, and Katie Britt, his right-wing colleague from Alabama.

The bill would create a government-run program, overseen by the Department of Commerce. Children and their parents would have to upload identification to prove their age.

In a report released in 2021, the nonprofit Thorn said 45% of kids under the age of 13 already use Facebook daily, while 40% of children in that age group use Instagram – incidentally, both networks belong to parent company Meta.

Lawmakers seem to understand that a potentially vast expansion of the government’s role in regulating the internet would probably be controversial. That’s why the legislation says tech firms could still develop their own in-house age verification technology or hire third-party companies to perform the necessary checks.

It remains to be seen whether the proposed bill will not be buried by party leaders. But some doubts have already emerged.

First, the document could be viewed as competing with another bill, known as the Kid’s Online Safety Act, which is being developed by Connecticut Democratic senator Richard Blumenthal and Tennessee Republican senator Marsha Blackburn.

Blumenthal told CNN he welcomed additional ideas about child safety online. But the senator also said he wouldn’t particularly like the idea of a national database with personal information about kids in the hands of Big Tech.

Besides, as Design It For Us, a youth coalition pushing for changes in social media, said in its response to the bill, lawmakers should focus on the platforms themselves and their design.

“We believe that any legislation addressing harm on social media should put the onus on companies to make their platforms safer, instead of preventing kids and teens from being on platforms at all,” said Zamaan Qureshi, a co-chair of the group.

“As college students who grew up with social media accounts since middle school, we know that age verification, parental surveillance and platform policing don’t address the harm that young people experience online. Instead, these tactics let Big Tech companies off the hook and only exacerbate the mental health challenges kids and teens are facing online.”