Kids Are Smart: Teach Them To Be Safe Online

This op-ed originally appeared in Techdirt on September 27, 2023, and was co-authored by tech and innovation policy intern Gavin Hickman.

Last April, Utah Governor Spencer Cox noted that “Kids are smart, they’ll find ways around” Utah’s new social media bans. But that’s not the reason why these laws will fail teens in Utah, Arkansas, and Texas. These laws will fail teens because state leaders don’t believe kids are smart enough to learn to use social media appropriately.

Florida, on the other hand, had the good sense to turn to education as a tool for keeping teens safe and healthy online.

Section 230 and First Amendment Battles

You read that correctly — Florida. The same state that launched an unconstitutional attack on Section 230 last year. The same state actively working against the First Amendment. The same state picking fights with Disney, creator of the only mouse welcome in US households. Clearly, the state has problems. But sometimes it gets things closer to correct.

Florida’s not alone either. A bill from the California legislature, the same state that passed the first problematic age-verification law, is also leaning into education as an alternative to bans. If only that’s where the desire to regulate the internet “for the children” ended.

It may be a bit too soon to say, given the bipolar attitudes of these states toward tech, but this year they both acknowledged the reality of the situation and moved in a more positive direction. When it comes to the “future of society,” as Jonathan Haidt put it, kids become adults and move away. If we don’t equip them with a basic understanding of the world online because we’ve hidden them away, we’ve failed them.

Weighing Concerns Against Privacy and Cybersecurity

As retired Utah teacher Linda Bettinger put it, “Media literacy is education for individual empowerment.” But in the face of rising teen depression, which some attribute to teen social media use, legislators across the country looked for a shutoff valve in the form of legislative age-gating.

To be sure, the list of serious issues teens face online is a long one, including cyberbullying and child sexual exploitationSome in Utah felt that bans were the most appropriate solution to teen “algorithm addiction.”

When all of the above are merged into a one-pager, these issues become paramount in the minds of legislators, even in the face of clear privacy and cybersecurity risks.

But there’s also a long list of healthy and beneficial uses of social media. It can be useful for learning creative applications of physics and engineering, remembering the birthdays of faraway friends and relatives, discovering symptoms of difficult-to-diagnose diseases, finding jobs, and networking with professionals, just to name a few.

Each of these is contemplated in Florida’s law and notably absent from Utah’s. Florida’s approach also accounts for the efforts of social media companies to introduce tools and resources for parents.

Far from complacent, social media companies and internet service providers (ISPs) have responded to online threats by developing safety tools. The prevalent approach among them is giving parents a say in their children’s browsing experience using time limits. At the user level, social media companies and smartphone makers alike have also begun employing tools to give parents access to child accounts and blacklisting known harmful websites.

Of course, even though the trust and safety teams at social media companies, ISPs, and device manufacturers have unquestionably reduced the baseline level of risk out in the wild, some believe the danger to teens is still too great.

But where safety tools may fail, education and parental involvement have a major role to play in picking up the slack.

In this sense, states should look to update their educational curriculum instead of banning teens. Hefty civil penalties against social media companies may play well in headlines, but teens will pay the price if forced to grow up without learning to navigate the complex online world.

Florida’s Governor may have called the state the “Utah of the Southeast,” but when it comes to teen social media use, Florida leads the field.