On February 16th, lawmakers in California’s House of Representatives announced the proposal for a bill that would regulate how tech companies collect data for minors, along with the type of content that minors have access to. Following the pandemic, during which children were stuck at home and spent far more time online, digital media has become a much larger part of many children’s lives.
State Representatives Buffy Wicks and Jordan Cunningham were the creators of the bill, which they modeled after a UK bill passed in 2020. Here in California, the law serves to force companies to create further protections if minors are likely to visit their sites. These protections include stronger default privacy protections, a priority of privacy over engagement, and restrictions on how data is used. When asked about his opinion on these policies, senior Cal Stewertson said, “I think that the law is good. I wouldn’t want a child’s information to be stolen by companies.”
Since the early 2000s, digital media has taken up increasing amounts of time in the days of minors. The creation of wholly digital spaces led to them replacing real-world equivalents with online spaces, with sites such as Snapchat, YouTube, or Discord. The pandemic and resulting lockdown only worsened this trend.
With daycare and outside recreation no longer being an option for the vast majority of families, minors fell further into the internet. In some cases, teens doubled their screen time from before the pandemic. Children ages eight to 12 spend four to six hours online each day, while teens spend nine hours.
This has had a severe effect on the types of content that minors are able to access easily, with them being exposed to online abuse and extremely explicit content. In particular, sites like Instagram and YouTube leave them vulnerable to this possibility. According to Politico, Wicks stated, “We have an environment where kids are nudged to take part in risky behaviors, they’re exposed to predators, they’re exposed to harmful material, they’re encouraged into compulsive behavior.”
Recently, more companies have been taking steps to end the harmful effect of the internet on young minds. Apps like Instagram and YouTube have features that remind kids to take breaks, while Google has made safe search the default for underage users. However, these moves are highly variable, and easily disabled by users, often simply by lying about their ages. In particular, these apps maintain so-called “nudging” features, which encourage users to adjust their settings to allow for more notifications and less stringent privacy settings.
Typically, companies adjust their policies based on the strongest state policies, and right now most state policies are fairly weak. As the most populous state in the nation, California creates a strong precedent for other states to follow. Wicks, one of the cosponsors of the bill, says that “we [California] have the ability to have a ripple effect.”Already, this seems to be accurate.
Senators Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) have begun to push for similar minor digital privacy laws both in their respective states and in Congress. Additionally, 15 bills concerning greater privacy protections are circulating in the U.S. Congress.
Despite this support across the country and internationally, there are some concerns about the bill. The California Chamber of Congress and TechNet both oppose the bill on the grounds that it is too broad, and applies to all sites that are possibly accessible by minors, not sites designed for them. In accordance with this, some M-A students have expressed doubts.
Senior Katie Spivakovsky said, “I can see how it could get out of hand in determining what is right for children versus what is wrong.” Additionally, the need to regulate data collection for minors may require companies to collect more data to determine their ages in the first place. In attempting to reduce data collection for teens and kids, the law could cause more of it for the rest of the population.
Particularly at M-A, these issues of privacy and the powers of tech companies to collect data are extremely important. Digital spaces pervade almost every aspect of our lives, and we are just down the road from such tech giants as Meta and Google. However, this law could change how much power individuals, especially minors and even students here at M-A, have over these companies.