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Parents in the Senate want new limits on social media to protect kids' mental health

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

The mental health epidemic facing U.S. teenagers is motivating an unusual group of senators to join forces. Two Democrats and two Republicans, all parents of young kids or teens, say some first steps in keeping children safer online are limiting access to social media platforms and restricting the kind of content pushed out to teens. The group expects the tech industry to try to defeat their bill, but they say this bill and others show growing momentum in Congress to do something. NPR congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh sat down with the bipartisan group on Capitol Hill and brings us this report.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Freshman Alabama Republican Senator Katie Britt is a mom of two teens. She says she heard from parents at her kid's track meet about the negative impact of social media.

KATIE BRITT: As I talked to other moms who were trying to deal with this, it tells you the troubling uncertainty that social media brings into children's lives.

WALSH: She says some apps are only ramping up anxiety among kids.

BRITT: I think all of us can look back to when we grew up and look at the challenges of being a middle schooler or a high schooler. If you add the pressures of social media, you can see how quickly that can have a negative impact on children who are trying to learn and grow and explore and be.

WALSH: Britt and another conservative, Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton, teamed up with two progressive Democrats, Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Chris Murphy of Connecticut, on a bill they say will help shield kids from harmful content on platforms like Instagram and TikTok.

CHRIS MURPHY: If the four of us can agree on this, you know, who come from very different political and ideological backgrounds, I think there's real hope that this approach can get to the Senate floor and get 60 votes.

WALSH: That's Senator Murphy, who says their bill puts parents in the game to make sure their kids' data isn't accessed and used by tech companies. He saw the upsides for his two sons connecting online during the pandemic. But...

MURPHY: I've also seen the flip side. You know, I've seen amongst my kids' peers how very quickly these algorithms can drive you to dangerous content, to content that is encouraging self-harm, that's making you feel shameful about your body image.

WALSH: Cotton says these companies make money off of keeping kids addicted.

TOM COTTON: Social media is designed to feed them exploitative content, stuff that's going to attract their eyeballs continuously, and in many cases, it's age inappropriate.

WALSH: And he says this legislation focuses on helping parents gain more control.

COTTON: They just want the same power they have in the real world to extend to the digital world.

WALSH: Schatz says it was surprisingly easy for the four to agree on a bill once they zeroed in on the severity of the problem. He pointed out that more than half of teen girls feel persistent despair and the spike in mental health challenges across the board. The legislation says you have to be 13 to get an account, must have your parents' consent, and it also blocks social media companies from using algorithms to distribute content to kids. Here's Schatz.

BRIAN SCHATZ: These algorithms are probably more powerful than an adult's brain, but certainly more powerful than a developing child's brain, and their business model is to make kids linger.

WALSH: Some senators say that this approach could put more onus on parents and less on the tech companies. Britt says the facts speak for themselves.

BRITT: Data doesn't lie. From 2011 to 2019, we more than doubled the feeling of depression amongst our teens. One in 3 young women in high school has said that she has considered suicide. And when you think about that, inaction is not an option.

WALSH: While other bipartisan efforts to tackle online safety are more focused on policing content and forcing the social media companies to be accountable, these four senators stressed their bill's ban on the algorithm - the driver of the content - is what can protect vulnerable teens. Another key provision is requiring age verification before kids can create accounts and setting up a system for parents to approve their kids signing up. Cotton stresses they take a flexible approach and use technology that companies already use for other applications.

COTTON: They could use third-party contractors of the kind that, say, the VA currently uses, or states as politically diverse as Wyoming and California use. The important part is they cannot simply continue to use simple check-the-box attestations or the entry of a birthday, which are, of course, easily evaded.

WALSH: Some civil liberties groups argue collecting more data from parents about their kids could add to privacy concerns. Cotton dismissed those arguments.

COTTON: The data we're talking about here is your birthday, your birthday - stuff that many people put online voluntarily, or that government agencies at your local, state and federal level all have access to and know, and your parent-child relationship. That's it.

WALSH: Tech companies maintain they already have tools in place to police dangerous content for kids and say they constantly reevaluate them. A spokesperson for Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, told NPR that research from parents, teens and academics shapes the protections they have in place, and they will work with policymakers on these issues. Congress doesn't have much of a track record passing legislation that regulates or restricts tech companies, but Schatz thinks the country is at a tipping point.

SCHATZ: Yes, it's true that every year, someone proposes something in terms of tech policy, and every year, the tech industry kills it. I do think this time is different because parents and even children are standing up and saying enough is enough.

WALSH: In the last week, two more bipartisan bills have been unveiled in the Senate to boost safety measures for kids online. They take aim at making the social media companies more accountable through new regulations on data collection, oversight by federal agencies and bans on advertising. These four senators say the more, the merrier. Deirdre Walsh, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.