Congress is using kids to hold Big Tech accountable. Kids will get hurt in the process.
In a few minutes, the Senate Judiciary will start a hearing focused on “Big Tech and the Online Child Exploitation Crisis.” Like most such hearings, this will almost certainly go off the rails in a wide variety of directions that I can’t even predict. But almost certainly, given the committee, it will include references to the various efforts by Congress to purportedly protect children from the ill-intended motivations of social media companies.
To be honest, I am pulling my hair out over “online safety” bills that pretend to be focused on helping young people when they’re really anti-tech bills that are using children for political agendas in ways that will fundamentally hurt the most vulnerable young people out there.
The Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA) continues to march through the halls of Congress as though it’s the best thing since sliced bread, even though one of the co-creators of this bill clearly stated that her intention is to protect children from “the transgender” and to prevent “indoctrination” from the LGBT community. I’m flabbergasted by how many Democrats shrug their shoulders and say that it’s still worth it to align with hateful politicians because it’ll help more kids. The thing is: it won’t.
Let me try to lay out a few pieces of my frustration with this kind of bill (although I’m trying to keep this brief…). In short,
1. These “safety” bills are based on a faulty understanding of children’s mental health.
2. Bills like KOSA are predicated on the same technological solutionism that makes the logics of the tech industry so infuriating.
3. Children are dying. They’re in crisis. And we’re not providing them with the support they most need.
4. Many aspects of the tech industry are toxic. It’s politically prudent to use children. But it doesn’t help children and it doesn’t address the core issues in tech.
Let’s unpack these dynamics.
Wrong Definition of the Problem.
Are young people in a crisis? ABSOLUTELY. Suicide ideation and completion rates are increasing. Depression and anxiety are escalating. Youth are crying out for help in countless ways, including turning to the internet in the hopes that they’ll find support.
Depression, anxiety, and suicidality can never be explained by singular forces. They reflect not only an ecological problem but our steadfast refusal to see it as such. For reasons that have baffled me since I was a kid and told that “this is your brain on drugs,” I’ve been dumbfounded about the tendency to identify one problem and blame it for children’s woes. As a student, I went down a rabbit hole studying “moral panics.” I got a crash course on this when the public blamed Columbine on video games. Twenty five years later, I continue to be stunned by how powerful “media effects” rhetoric is. Why are so many people comfortable blaming some genre of media for social ills? Why is that so satisfying?
People keep telling me that it’s clearly technology because the rise in depression, anxiety, and suicidality tracks temporally alongside the development of social media and cell phones. It also tracks alongside the rise in awareness about climate change. And the emergence of an opioid epidemic. And the increase in school shootings. And the rising levels of student debt. And so many pressures that young people have increasingly faced for the last 25 years. None of these tell the whole story. All of these play a role in what young people are going through. And yet, studies are commissioned to focus on one factor alone: technology. (And people get outraged when reports like the one from the National Academies show inclusive causality.)
I wrote an entire book called “It’s Complicated” to try to unpack the myths we have about young people and technology. One message I’ve been trying (and failing) to get across for almost 20 years is that: The internet mirrors and magnifies the good, bad, and ugly. We know that media exposure can be a trigger. If a teenager is already experiencing suicidal thoughts, watching a show like “13 Reasons Why” can allow young people to justify taking their lives. When I was at Crisis Text Line, we saw the cost of that show as a trigger firsthand. We know that when celebrities die by suicide, the copycat phenomenon is heartwrenching. We also know that when young people experience a climate disaster, mental health falls apart.
Social media and technology connect young people to information and people. They can absolutely be exposed to content that is triggering. But some of the worst content out there comes from the news. Should we be blocking young people’s access to information about wars, climate disasters, and death by police?
The problem is not: “Technology causes harm.” The problem is: “We live in an unhealthy society where our most vulnerable populations are suffering because we don’t invest in resilience or build social safety nets.”
Solutionism is Counter-Productive.
In technology studies, it is common to eyeroll at techno-optimism and other fantasies of technological saviorism. There are many labels for the endemic problem in the tech industry: the “technological fix,” technological determinism, and technological solutionism. Each means slightly different things but the basic story is: people who are obsessed with tech think that it will solve all.the.things™ and they are fools.
For the last few years, I’ve been stunned to watch how the techlash has evolved from attempting to call into question these foolish logics to outright blaming tech companies for intentionally causing harms. Somehow, we’ve shifted from “tech will save democracy” to “tech will destroy democracy.” (Hint: democracy was in deep shit before tech.) The weird thing about this framing is that it’s as technologically deterministic as the tech industry’s orientation.
So imagine my surprise when I came back from a three-month offline sabbatical to discover that politicians wanted to legally mandate technological solutionism “for good.” Bills like KOSA don’t just presume that tech caused the problems youth are facing; they presume that if tech companies were just forced to design better, they could fix the problems. María Angel pegged it right: this is techno-legal-solutionism. And it’s a fatally flawed approach to addressing systemic issues. Even if we did believe that tech causes bullying, the idea that they could design to stop it is delusional. Schools have every incentive in the world to prevent bullying; have they figured it out? And then there’s the insane idea that tech could be designed to not cause emotional duress. Sociality can cause emotional duress. The news causes emotional duress. Is the message here to go live in a bubble?
The solution is not “make tech fix society.” The intervention we need to an ecological problem is an ecological one. The real question is what we are centering.
If You Care About Children, CENTER THEM.
In all of these discussions, we keep centering technology. Technology is the problem, technology should be the solution. What if, instead, we focused on what challenges young people are facing? What if we actually invested in addressing the issues at the core of their anxiety, depression, and suicidality? What if we invested in helping those who are most vulnerable?
Let’s start at the top of the stack. Most people under the age of 26 years old in the United States do not have access to mental health services without involving their parents. And even if you can find a therapist (good luck these days!), the likelihood of having sustained affordable access to mental health services is minimal. Around the world, seeking mental health support is sometimes more available but it’s often more stigmatized. Young people cannot address mental health struggles alone. They need help. We need to ensure that young people have access to affordable, high quality mental health services. This is a critical safety net.
When young people don’t have access to professional services, they are looking for people around them to help. We know that when young people have access to a wide network of non-custodial adults (think: aunties, coaches, pastors, etc.), said adults are more likely to sense out when things are bad. Young people are also more likely to turn to those folks. Guess what? Our social fabric in the United States has been fraying for a long time for a myriad of reasons. But this all got much more acute during Covid. Just as workers’ weak ties disintegrated during Covid, I suspect young people’s connections to non-custodial adults fell apart. And many of the adults who should be there for young people are themselves struggling. How many teachers out there are unable to support kids in crisis cuz they’ve got too much going on? It scares me how many young people can’t count a single adult that they can turn to in a crisis. Everyone who is on the front line of this crisis is feeling it. Ask any professor what they’re facing with this current crop of incoming college students. Ask those who are providing afterschool care. So many adults are falling apart trying to provide mental health services that they’re not equipped to offer because there’s no alternative and they care so much that they’re continuing to burn out.
Now let’s look at some of the sources of anxiety. Reducing climate anxiety through sound approaches to combating climate change would certainly be constructive. So would ensuring that young women had reproductive rights. So would protecting students from being shot down at school or walking down the street. So would empowering motivated youth to get an education without become trapped in indentured servitude. So would providing food security for families. So would making sure that a parent could afford to be around to help them out. So would guaranteeing that young people are accepted in a society no matter their gender, sexuality, ability, race, religion, caste, etc. Y’know… the fundamentals.
But I get it… the fundamentals aren’t politically tractable. And everyone can agree that going after Big Tech is a good idea. It’s way easier than doing the collective work or taking the collective responsibility to address the problems our children have. Too bad increasing tools for parental surveillance, blocking young people from tech, or empowering attorneys general to blame tech for content they don’t like won’t actually help young people.
Spend some time hanging out on TikTok or scanning Instagram or perusing YouTube and you can find numerous young people who aren’t doing well. They’re seeking attention, validation, belonging. And that ranges from normal teen dramas to full throttle mental breakdowns. Who is reaching out to those young people? Who is making sure that they are ok? We need a digital street outreach program, not a law that tries to render them invisible. When I was a teenager trying to grapple with my identity, strangers in chatrooms gave me hope and encouragement. Today, it is toxic people with an ideological agenda who are reaching out to those crying out for help in online communities. This doesn’t get fixed by pushing youth to the darkest corners of the internet or outing them to their parents through surveillance tools. To the contrary, that makes it worse. We need more people who are willing to be there for the next generation, not shun them.
If You Wanna Go After Tech, Go For It. Just Don’t (Ab)Use Children In The Process.
I get why the public and politicians are annoyed with the tech companies. If this is news to you, check out Cory Doctorow’s The Internet Con. He offers an impassioned account of how infuriating big tech can be. And he has choice words for Facebook in particular because he sees it as “uniquely bad.”
I have no interest in defending tech companies. I’ve spent years lambasting their abuses of privacy, their vulnerabilities towards algorithmic manipulation, their toxic dependence on advertising, and their arrogance. What irks me is not the idea that tech should be regulated, but the tendency by politicians to (ab)use children in their pursuit of regulating tech.
Part of why we are where we are is because politicians continue to fail to pass general data privacy laws. Anti-trust efforts have not had the teeth that anti-monopolists desire. And so many other efforts to curb the power and toxicity of tech companies have failed. Somehow, time immemorial, the answer to gridlock on important issues is to reposition them as “for the children.” After all, children can’t vote. And increasing parental controls is politically fruitful in the only nation that is a member of the UN but has not ratified the UN Rights of the Child. (Dear foreigners: the United States treats children as property of parents in so many different ways, starting with how we allocate political power.)
By all means, go after big tech. Regulate advertising. Create data privacy laws. Hold tech accountable for its failure to be interoperable. But for the love of the next generation, don’t pretend that it’s going to help vulnerable youth. And when the problem is sociotechnical in nature, don’t expect corporations to be able to solve it.
I Am Frustrated.
While politicians politic, young people struggle. The services that can meaningfully help young people are underfunded and drowning. Teachers and parents are burnt out. Access to mental health care is limited. And kids are turning to the internet in hopes of finding connection, community, and help. For some, going down online rabbit holes makes things worse for sure. But the fact is that many have nowhere else to go. That should scare all of us. Young people need social infrastructure to hold them. They don’t benefit from new tools for surveillance. And trying to block young people’s access to community and the online tools they use in pursuit of mental health support will not magically make the problems go away. Their pain will just become less visible.
Over the last year, I’ve struggled with whether or not to get involved with this fight. I promised myself that when I became a parent, I’d stop studying youth so that my children did not become research subjects. For the last decade, I’ve kept tabs on the research focused on young people and social media but I’ve focused my energies elsewhere. In addition to my work on privacy and the politics of data, I also devoted the last 10 years to addressing the mental health crisis through volunteering to support Crisis Text Line based on all that I learned studying youth. There, I’ve had a front row seat to the pain that many young people are facing.
A year ago, friends started asking me to engage on these political fights given my experience with an earlier round. But I also struggled to find my voice. Every time I tried to speak up, I was told that my expertise has no value for the simple reason that I currently work for the research arm of a technology company. It doesn’t matter that my research on young people pre-dated my employment or that my volunteer mental health work isn’t connected to the company. I was told time and time again that I am nothing more than an apologist for tech whenever I raise concerns about how we are approaching the relationship between young people and tech. I’ve been called a sellout for objecting to bills like KOSA.
At this point, I’m boiling over with deep frustration. I am a researcher. I don’t speak on behalf of my employer or any organization I’ve dedicated my time towards. I’m also a parent. But I don’t speak on behalf of my kids either. Nor do I think that my kids are representative of the kids that I met doing fieldwork or the conversations that I witnessed doing mental health work. I speak as someone who wants everyone to stop centering tech and start centering youth.
I’m tired of having my expertise regularly ignored. I’m also sick and tired of watching peers in the research community be harassed whenever they raise concerns about KOSA or question the dominant narrative the “real” problem is tech. Even those who have nothing to do with tech are being publicly shamed or harassed at meetings. People don’t get how shittily researchers who challenge a political message that’s supposedly “for the children” get treated. This is especially painful when we are doing it precisely to support the most vulnerable young people in society.
I learned this lesson hardcore fifteen years ago when I naively provided a literature review on the risks young people faced to the then-attorney general of Connecticut. He didn’t like what the summation of hundreds of studies showed; he barked at me to find different data. A few months later, I learned that a Frontline reporter was tasked with “proving” that I was falsifying data. After investigating me, she warned me that I had pissed off a lot of powerful people. Le sigh.
I am frustrated. Bills like KOSA will not help young people. They are rooted in a political agenda to look like they’re holding big tech accountable. But they pretend like they will make a difference and it’s not politically prudent to challenge the failed logic. Still, human rights and LGBT organizations see through this agenda. They are worried because these bills will be weaponized to harm those who are already at risk. And still, politicians are moving forward editing this bill as though something good will come for it. Why on earth do we allow politicians to use children in their agendas?
I’m scared. I’m scared for the vulnerable youth out there who don’t have parents that they can trust. I’m scared for the kids who are struggling and don’t have a safety net. I’m scared for the LGBT kids who are being targeted by politicians. I’m scared for the pregnant teenagers who don’t have the right to control their bodies. I’m scared for those who see no future with a planet that’s heating up. I’m scared for those who are struggling with wars. I’m scared for the children who are being abused. None of these young people will be served by wagging a finger at Meta and telling them to design better. More likely, more and more young people will be shunted from services that are their lifeline while their cries for help go unheeded.
I’m sick and tired of politicians using young people for spectacle. I get why well-meaning people are hoping that this imperfect bill will at least move the needle in the right direction. I get that parents are anxious about their kids’ tech use. But the stark reality is that bills like this will do more harm to vulnerable youth at the very moment when so many young people need help. They need investment, attention, support. What will it take for people to realize that focusing on tech isn’t the path forward to helping youth? Sadly, I know the answer. More dead kids.