A bipartisan bill similar to Utah’s recent efforts to regulate teen social media use was reintroduced in the U.S. Senate Tuesday by Sens. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn, and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.
Described in a statement by Blackburn’s office as “comprehensive bipartisan legislation to protect children online and hold Big Tech accountable,” the 50-page Kids Online Safety Act would prevent social media platforms from targeting minors with “addictive” algorithms, and gives parents greater control over their children’s accounts.
According to the bill’s text, parents would be able to “limit screen time, restrict features that encourage compulsive use, control personalization systems, and limit access to their profiles.”
Parents would also be able to monitor their children’s accounts by tracking the time spent on social media, restricting their ability to purchase items and controlling different safety settings.
It also requires social media companies mitigate content that promotes “suicide, eating disorders, substance abuse, sexual exploitation, and unlawful products for minors” like gambling and drinking.
The bill sailed through the Commerce Committee in 2022 with a 28-0 vote. Still, dozens of groups — including the American Civil Liberties Union — warned that the law would force companies to “over moderate” and limit helpful resources for children. The bill ultimately did not pass after an attempt to include it in a spending package.
The bill has since been refined, including one provision that ensures platforms will not limit searches related to access to support services, like suicide prevention, as warned about last year by advocates.
But its critics remain, including Ari Cohn, a First Amendment lawyer based in Chicago who previously called Utah’s social media laws “a huge First Amendment problem.”
“KOSA (Kids Online Safety Act) 2.0 raises more questions than it answers,” Cohn said in a statement Tuesday. “What constitutes reason to know that a user is under 17 is entirely unclear, and undefined by the bill. In the face of that uncertainty, platforms will clearly have to age-verify all users to avoid liability — or worse, avoid obtaining any knowledge whatsoever and leave minors without any protections at all.”
Parallels to Utah’s laws
The Kids Online Safety Act is the latest attempt by lawmakers to curb what they say is the harm caused by teen social media use, which according to some studies, is linked to depression, anxiety, loneliness, self-harm and even suicidal ideation.
In late March, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox signed two of the country’s first and most restrictive bills into law that, come March 2024, will require some kind of age verification for all social media users and give parents greater control over their children’s accounts.
“These are first of their kind bills in the United States. And that’s huge that Utah is leading out on this effort,” Cox said at the time.
Sponsored by Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, SB152 will require a social media company to verify the age of a Utah resident before opening an account. For prospective users under 18 years old, the bill directs the social media company to obtain the consent of a parent or guardian before the account is live.
The law also restricts what accounts the minor can message, allows parents to set time limits, shields the minor from targeted ads and gives parents access to the minor’s profile.
And HB311, sponsored by Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, prohibits social media companies from using a “design or feature that causes a minor to have an addiction to the company’s social media platform.”
What’s unclear is how the bill will use age verification — McKell told the Deseret News after the bill signing that it can’t be “limited to a government form of ID,” and that lawmakers and the division are looking for other options.
That’s also an unanswered question in the Kids Online Safety Act. The bill directs the National Institute of Standards and Technology to study “the most technologically feasible options” for age verification “with an emphasis on the privacy of minors.”