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Next week, Congress plans to move a bill forward that is opposed by dozens of organizations, digital rights protectors, LGBTQ+ activists, and human rights defenders: the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA). As we’ve written before, KOSA would lead to censorship and privacy invasions for all social media users. But the most impacted groups will be young people, who the bill purports to help by banishing to a second-class internet.
What’s often been left out of the debate over KOSA is how young people feel about this. In fact, many teenagers already oppose the bill. Young TikTok users have been rallying one another to call and email legislators to push back on the bill, and videos describing what’s wrong with KOSA have received hundreds of thousands of views. The common sentiment on TikTok, which is primarily used by young people, is that the bill would be disastrous, leading to privacy invasions, account deletions, and even suicides. Petitions and calls to action against it on Tumblr, where 48% of the active users and 61% of new ones are from Generation Z, have gone viral multiple times. The common critiques of the bill are that it requires surveillance of minors by parents, that it would lead to huge holes in what information and platforms are accessible by young people online, and that it would force all users to upload their IDs to verify their ages.
The kids are all right: The bill is not a solution to the problems of social media, and in fact, will make the internet much worse for young people. If you’re a young person unsure of where to stand on the bill, here’s a short explainer.
- KOSA’s main goal—to limit access to harmful materials—is unworkable and will lead to censorship. The vague “duty of care” to prevent harms to minors will require overly broad content filtering. We know already that this sort of filtering fails, both at the platform and the user level. Platforms are notoriously bad at content moderation at scale, frequently allowing content that violates their terms of service while penalizing users who post benign content that’s misidentified as dangerous.
- Under KOSA, this sort of flawed moderation will come with legal force. Platforms will be pressured by state attorneys general seeking to make political points about what kind of information is appropriate for young people. So not only will the moderation be inaccurate, but it will sweep in a variety of content that is not harmful. Ultimately, this bill would cut off a vital avenue of access to information for vulnerable youth. Platforms will be required to block important educational content, often made by young people themselves, about how to deal with anxiety, depression, eating disorders, substance use disorders, physical violence, online bullying and harassment, sexual exploitation and abuse, and suicidal thoughts.
- Lastly, KOSA would have the practical effect of enabling parental surveillance. The law would unreasonably bucket all people under seventeen into a single category, despite the widespread understanding that older minors should have greater autonomy, privacy, and access to information than younger children, and that not every parent-child dynamic is healthy or constructive.
Since KOSA was first introduced, it’s become even clearer that online platforms impact young people of varying ages and backgrounds differently, and one-size-fits-all legislation is a bad approach to solving the ills of social media. In March, the American Psychological Association (APA) released a “health advisory” on social media use in adolescence that makes clear that “using social media is not inherently beneficial or harmful to young people.” Rather, the effects of social media depend on multiple factors—in particular, “teens’ preexisting strengths or vulnerabilities, and the contexts in which they grow up.”
KOSA has laudable goals, but it also presents significant unintended consequences that threaten the privacy, safety, and access to information rights of young people and adults alike. Teenagers already understand that this sweeping legislation is more about censorship than safety. Now we just need to make sure Congress does, as well.