Joe Biden’s Foolish Rush to Regulate the Way Kids Use Technology

During Tuesday’s State of the Union address, President Joe Biden called for more regulation of technology platforms, especially regarding young users. Namely, Biden called for a ban on targeted advertising to children.

In recent years, calls for regulation of technology to protect children and teens have increased from policymakers on both sides of the aisle, both at the state and federal levels. But when it comes to determining the best way to help children and teenagers use the Internet, parents (or other trusted adults in a young person’s life) should make the decisions, not the government.

Many people, including policy makers, are rightly concerned about the increasing number of mental health problems in teenagers and young people today. In search of a solution to a difficult problem, some are quick to blame what is new, such as the increased use of social media.

However, currently available data do not clearly support a causal connection between social media use and mental health problems. The “one size fits all” approach decided by the government would not only be unlikely to solve any of the alleged problems, but would also have serious consequences for both young people and parents.

Despite concerns about the negative effects of social media on young people, there are also incredibly positive examples of how young people have used social media. Be that as it may body-positive images that improve body satisfactionthe ability to form communities around common interests like video games or basketball, or young people sharing their voices and explaining what it’s like to be a teenager today, online platforms and social media can be very useful for today’s digital natives.

Policy is a poor tool for addressing nuance, and many proposals could result in limiting beneficial or benign uses of technology.

For example, calls to regulate recommendations of “mental health content” for teenagers would also likely ban positive recovery content for those struggling. Other proposals risk blocking young people from accessing important information about topics deemed sensitive, or could make tasks like college recruiting more difficult by eliminating targeted advertising. In general, such proposals treat all internet use by young people similarly, focusing excessively on preventing possible negative consequences.

Biden’s call Tuesday to ban targeted advertising to youth online is just the latest example of a politician demonizing the use of data and algorithms without fully understanding the alternatives and consequences.

Banning targeted advertising could result in more general ads that are less appropriate for the age group accessing the website. Banning advertising outright or making it more difficult to offer advertising services would likely result in a cost being passed on to consumers, potentially increasing the cost of child-friendly apps in the process. Either way, kids, teens, and parents will likely continue to face concerns about the ads they might encounter as they struggle with fewer and more expensive options.

It is somewhat ironic that the State of the Union speech was delivered on “Safer Internet Day.” This day highlights the range of tools and resources available to help parents and young people manage their online experiences. The right tools can vary from family to family and even from child to child based on specific needs.

In some cases, parents may want to use filters to ensure that their child or teen does not access certain content that conflicts with their values. In other cases, parents may trust their child but want to have time limits around device use.

An education-based and conversational approach can better prepare children to navigate the Internet independently as adults, and can also be an opportunity to impart digital and media literacy skills. This will be especially true when the first generation of digital millennials start having children.

The State of the Union highlighted renewed panic around children and teenagers on the Internet. As a society, we’ve seen this before—not only about the Internet itself, but also about other media such as video games and comics. Instead of empowering the government to intervene out of fear, we should look more holistically at young people’s online experiences. And we should empower parents and members of the next generation to make wise decisions about technology.

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