It Was a Mistake to Let Kids Onto Social Media Sites. Here’s What to Do Now. (NYT, 2022)

It Was a Mistake to Let Kids Onto Social Media

[Excerpt from It was a Mistake to Let Kids Onto Social Media Sites. Here’s What to Do Now. ]

Reliable age verification is feasible. For instance, as the policy analyst Chris Griswold has proposed, the Social Security Administration (which knows exactly how old you are) “could offer a service through which an American could type his Social Security number into a secure federal website and receive a temporary, anonymized code via email or text,” like the dual authentication methods commonly used by banks and retailers. With that code, the platforms could confirm your age without obtaining any other personal information about you.

Some teens would find ways to cheat, and the age requirement would be porous at the margins. But the draw of the platforms is a function of network effects — everyone wants to be on because everyone else is on. The age requirement only has to be passably effective to be transformative — as the age requirement takes hold, it would also be less true that everyone else is on.

Real age verification would also make it possible to more effectively restrict access to online pornography — a vast, dehumanizing scourge that our society has inexplicably decided to pretend it can do nothing about. Here, too, concerns about free speech, whatever their merits, surely don’t apply to children. (Emphasis supplied)

It may seem strange to get at the challenge of children’s use of social media through online privacy protections, but that path actually offers some distinct advantages. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act already exists as a legal mechanism. Its framework also lets parents opt in for their kids if they choose. It can be a laborious process, but parents who feel strongly that their kids should be on social media could allow it.

This approach would also get at a core problem with the social media platforms. Their business model — in which users’ personal information and attention are the essence of the product that the companies sell to advertisers — is key to why the platforms are designed in ways that encourage addiction, aggression, bullying, conspiracies and other antisocial behaviors. If the companies want to create a version of social media geared to children, they will need to design platforms that don’t monetize user data and engagement in that way — and so don’t involve those incentives — and then let parents see what they think.

Empowering parents is really the key to this approach. It was a mistake to let kids and teens onto the platforms in the first place. But we are not powerless to correct that mistake.