This bill would be bad news for LeBron James’s son Bronny James, who at age 14 accumulated more than 1 million Instagram followers in his first 24 hours.
Most of the biggest social media platforms officially require users to be at least 13 years old before they can join. That includes Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok (at least in the uncensored version), Reddit, Facebook, and Twitter.
However, the age verification measures are often of dubious effectiveness. Indeed, the average age for creating a first social media account is slightly younger than 13: specifically, 12.6 years old.
By about 16 years old, the vast majority of people are on social media platforms, particularly TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat. Increasing evidence indicates psychological and emotional harms from frequent social media use, among all ages but especially teenagers, such as heightened suicide risk.
In an unprecedented move, Seattle Public Schools sued several of the largest social media companies in January, claiming they exacerbate a youth and teen mental health crisis.
“Defendants’ growth is a product of choices they made to design and operate their platforms in ways that exploit the psychology and neurophysiology of their users into spending more and more time on their platforms,” the lawsuit reads. “These techniques are both particularly effective and harmful to the youth audience defendants have intentionally cultivated, creating a mental health crisis among America’s youth.”
In January, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy declared that 13 is too young for social media.
“I, personally, based on the data I’ve seen, believe that 13 is too early,” Murthy told CNN. “It’s a time where it’s really important for us to be thoughtful about what’s going into how they think about their own self-worth and their relationships. The skewed and often distorted environment of social media often does a disservice to many of those children.”
That was only the federal government’s advice, though, rather an actual federal government mandate.
What the bill does
The Social Media Child Protection Act would ban social media platforms from letting children younger than 16 access their content.
Companies in violation could face fines. The bill also explicitly opens such companies up to lawsuits by both parents suing on behalf of their children, and a state suing on behalf of its residents. (It’s unclear whether a city like Seattle could also do so, though.)
The bill was introduced in the House on February 2 as H.R. 821, by Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT2).
Rep. Stewart told Fox News Digital that his bill was inspired by a family friend’s 16-year-old daughter who died by suicide.
What supporters say
Supporters argue that social media has reached a point of demonstrable danger to tens of millions of American minors, necessitating an age minimum, as for other dangerous products like cigarettes.
“To all those who say this would be an overstep by our government, I understand your concern. And I share your ideological belief that more government usually makes life worse, not better,” Rep. Stewart said in a press release. “But we have countless protections for our children in the physical world: we require car seats and seat belts, we have fences around pools, we have a minimum drinking age of 21, and we have a minimum driving age of 16.”
“The damage to Generation Z from social media is undeniable — so why are there no protections in the digital world?” Rep. Stewart continued. “It’s well past time that we take bold, comprehensive action for the sake of our kids.”
What opponents say
Opponents counter that the legislation, while well-intentioned, could actually increase some minors’ mental health crises, particularly in certain communities or demographics.
“For many kids, especially LGBTQ young people who may have unsupportive parents or live in a conservative area, the internet and social media are a lifeline,” Fight for the Future’s director Evan Gree told the Washington Post. “There are very real concerns about the ways that Big Tech companies’ business practices harm kids, but we need better solutions than just cutting kids off from online community and educational resources.”
Opponents also counter that there are ways to tackle these problems which involve less heavy-handed government regulation. Carl Szabo, vice president and general counsel of NetChoice, has suggested a better alternative: several states are proposing legislation to require social media education in schools. (NetChoice represents several of the biggest social media companies.)
Odds of passage
The bill has not yet attracted any cosponsors. It awaits a potential vote in the House Energy and Commerce Committee.