This post is part of a series of resources produced by our Student Research Fellows in Summer 2023. The content does not necessarily reflect the official position of the organization.
Teens’ mental health struggles are often attributed to social media and technology use, but many more factors are being overlooked. In 2022, a group of 26 Senators tried to add the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA) to several bill packages before the Senate concluded for the year. However, they were unable to gain the support they needed, and the bill lost traction until Spring 2023. It gained more attention this summer and was in the Senate for discussion again in July 2023.
KOSA is a bi-partisan bill, mostly being led by Senators Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, and Marsha Blackburn, a Republican from Tennessee. Blackburn led the campaign for Tennessee to ban drag shows and gender-affirming care for minors, which is why many LGBTQ+ organizations are incredibly alarmed by the bill she is co-sponsoring. Blackburn has also made comments attacking critical race theory, calling it “harmful radical propaganda.”
"KOSA risks subjecting teens who are experiencing domestic violence and parental abuse to additional forms of digital surveillance and control that could prevent these vulnerable youth from reaching out for help or support."
When Blumenthal first introduced the KOSA bill to Congress in 2022, a coalition of over 100 organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the American Library Association (ALA), wrote a letter to Congress urging them not to pass the bill. The letter explains that KOSA would essentially force internet providers “to use invasive filtering and monitoring tools” such as age verification. KOSA would not only block information from minors, it would also jeopardize internet privacy by requiring users to provide personal information to verify their age.
According to the coalition letter, age-verification requirements “can threaten users’ privacy…through the risk of data breaches, and chill their willingness to access sensitive information online because they cannot do so anonymously.”
KOSA is another attempt at transforming and restricting online privacy and is very similar to other bills such as the EARN IT Bill or the RESTRICT ACT, which also claim to protect young people. All of these bills, however, disproportionately affect marginalized communities and make them more vulnerable to surveillance.
KOSA would give state attorneys general the power to sue any website that provides information that is deemed inappropriate for minors, which is incredibly dangerous in an era of increased book bans and censorship campaigns. KOSA would also allow parents and state governments to restrict online information about sexuality and any other topic they find inappropriate. KOSA could make it more dangerous for LGBTQ+ activists to share content online, as they are often falsely accused of “grooming” minors simply for discussing LGBTQ+ topics.
Topics KOSA Addresses:
- Promotion of self-harm, suicide, eating disorders, substance abuse and other matters that pose a risk to the physical and mental health of a minor
- Patterns of use that indicate or encourage addiction like behaviors
- Physical harm, online bullying, and harassment
- Sexual exploitation, including enticement, grooming, sex trafficking, and sexual abuse of minors and trafficking of online child sexual abuse material
- Promotion and marketing of products or services that are unlawful for minors such as illegal drugs, tobacco, gambling or alcohol
- Predatory unfair or deceptive marketing practices
KOSA was created with the intention of protecting youth from online bullying and from the effects social media can have on teens’ mental health. However, Dr. Mike Males, senior researcher for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, argues parental abuse plays a much larger role in teen mental health struggles than social media use. He writes, “Teens are several times more likely to be bullied and injured at home by parents than at school or from online encounters – surprising, since the CDC's definition of peer bullying is broader than for parents' emotional abuse.”
Teens often use the internet to form connections and gain support, especially LGBTQ+ teens who have a higher risk of being abused at home. The coalition letter explains the harms KOSA could enable: "KOSA would cover older minors as well, and would have the practical effect of enabling parental surveillance of 15- and 16-year-olds. Older minors have their own independent rights to privacy and access to information, and not every parent-child dynamic is healthy or constructive. KOSA risks subjecting teens who are experiencing domestic violence and parental abuse to additional forms of digital surveillance and control that could prevent these vulnerable youth from reaching out for help or support."
In other words, KOSA and other censorship bills could further isolate teens who are already at risk of abuse, or who face other forms of oppression such as homophobia, racism, ableism, misogyny and transphobia. Supporters of KOSA claim that the bill will hold tech companies accountable by making them liable for the information on their platforms, but the fear of being held liable could also incentivize companies to over-censor their platforms to avoid legal action. This may lead to information gaps online and affect people of all ages, not just youth.
The ALA has written that providing youth with the tools to analyze and understand information is the best way to help them stay safe online. The organization believes youth should be supported in making informed decisions, but bills like KOSA take away young people’s agency.
ALA has been outspoken about similar policies in the past, such as the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). Public institutions like schools and libraries are required to comply with CIPA to receive federal funding and discounts on internet services. According to the ALA, freedom of information and expression apply to minors as well as adults. Policies like KOSA and CIPA limit minors’ civil liberties.
Samantha Godwin, a resident fellow at Yale Law, writes that laws defending parental rights are often created with the assumption that children cannot make their own decisions because they do not have the same “maturity, experience, and capacity for judgment” that adults do.
Godwin also argues that being able to make decisions and have one's voice recognized are fundamental human rights that should not be based on age or perceived skill level. Children and teens are much smarter than adults ever give them credit for, and adults often use flawed assumptions to limit teen’s agency.
KOSA would give parents and state governments the power to isolate youth from their support systems, to prevent them from making their own decisions, and to control the information they can access – all under the guise of protection.
“Minors are not a monolith, and what hurts one may help another,” says Ari Cohn, Free Speech Counsel at TechFreedom. “Requiring platforms to protect the vague, nonexistent best interests of minors as a whole will limit minors to only the blandest material safe for the most sensitive individual.” KOSA is built off of assumptions about what will keep kids safe and what material they should have access to. Seeing an entire group of people as a monolith with the same needs and opinions is dehumanizing, as is debating what’s in their best interest without hearing their diverse opinions.
It’s clear the real motives behind this bill are political. Facebook and other social media platforms have been violating our privacy and avoiding consequences for decades. So why is Congress finally choosing to focus on social media and “teens’ wellbeing?”
Gen Z and Millennial youth have found community online. They’ve learned about LGBTQ+ identities and social justice issues from people all around the world. Lawmakers and parents can no longer keep their children or constituents from learning about sexuality, gender, racial justice, and other movements they disagree with.
Youth today have much more agency to decide their own values and to do their own research on what they’re being told. That’s terrifying for lawmakers in many states. While being online always comes with safety and privacy concerns, the internet has given teens a platform. They’re not ready to give it up without a fight.
Series introduction and call-out quotation updated after publication.
- Children’s Internet Protection Act
- Critical Race Theory
- EARN IT Act
- Kids Online Safety Act
- RESTRICT Act
American Library Association. (2009, July 20). Libraries, Children & the Internet Questions & Answers. https://www.ala.org/ala/pio/mediarelationsa/factsheets/librarieschildren.htm
Anderson, M. (2022, November 16). Connection, creativity and drama: Teen life on social media in 2022. Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2022/11/16/connection-creativity-and-drama-teen-life-on-social-media-in-2022/
Bakhtiari, K. (2022, June 6). Gen-z demand racial justice, not just diversity, equity and inclusion from brands. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/kianbakhtiari/2022/06/05/gen-z-demand-racial-justice-not-just-diversity-equity-and-inclusion-from-brands/
Kids Online Safety Act, S.1409, 118th Cong. (2023). https://www.congress.gov/bill/118th-congress/senate-bill/1409/text/is
Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). Preventing bullying - centers for disease control and prevention. Preventing Bullying. https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/bullying-factsheet508.pdf
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, March 31). Adolescent behaviors and experiences survey (ABES). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/data/abes.htm
Center for Democracy and Technology. (2022, November 29). Coalition letter on privacy and free expression threats in Kids Online Safety Act. https://cdt.org/insights/coalition-letter-on-privacy-and-free-expression-threats-in-kids-online-safety-act/
Corbett, J. (2023, May 5). ACLU, allies warn internet bills “would undermine free speech, privacy, and security.” Common Dreams. https://www.commondreams.org/news/congress-children-internet-earn-it
Critical race theory. U.S. Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee. (n.d.). https://www.blackburn.senate.gov/critical-race-theory-an-action-plan-to-stop-its-implementation
Dorn, S. (2022, December 26). Child online privacy protections cut from Congress’ spending bill despite last-minute push. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/saradorn/2022/12/21/child-online-privacy-protections-cut-from-congress-spending-bill-despite-last-minute-push/?sh=744951413e95
Godwin, S. (2015, December 1). Against parental rights. Columbia Human Rights Law Review. https://corteidh.or.cr/tablas/r34784.pdf
Jones, J. M. (2023, June 5). LGBT identification in U.S. ticks up to 7.1%. Gallup.com. https://news.gallup.com/poll/389792/lgbt-identification-ticks-up.aspx
Kelley, J. (2022, April 6). The Kids Online Safety Act is a heavy-handed plan to force platforms to spy on young people. Electronic Frontier Foundation. https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2022/03/kids-online-safety-act-heavy-handed-plan-force-platforms-spy-young-people
KOSA still poses a grave threat to First Amendment rights. TechFreedom. (2023, July 26). https://techfreedom.org/kosa-still-poses-a-grave-threat-to-first-amendment-rights/
Males, M. (2022, November 18). Age-race-gender split in midterm vote augurs well for Progressives. LA Progressive. https://www.laprogressive.com/election-reform-campaigns/the-age-race-gender-split
Males, M. (2023, July 15). We’ve gotten the “teenage mental health crisis” dangerously wrong. Salon. https://www.salon.com/2023/07/15/weve-gotten-the-teenage-mental-health-crisis-dangerously/
Masnick, M. (2023, May 2). Bipartisan panic: 26 senators support terrible, dangerous, unconstitutional “KOSA Act.” Techdirt. https://www.techdirt.com/2023/05/02/bipartisan-panic-26-senators-support-terrible-dangerous-unconstitutional-kosa-act /
About the Author
Milo Santamaria is currently the webmaster at YouthFacts, a blog dedicated to advancing the rights of youth, and an MLIS student at San Jose State University. Milo also earned their bachelor’s degree in Sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. While at university, they were a fellow with UCSC’s Everett program, a student-led organization focused on using technology to create social change. They co-led youth workshops on prison abolition and helped maintain websites for Everett and its community partners.