U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Rochelle Walensky, director of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hold a forum on social media’s role in the nation’s children’s mental health crisis at Suffolk University on Friday. (Stuart Cahill/Boston Herald)
Social media platforms, like Twitter and Tik Tok, could soon be barred from collecting personal information from users who are 13 to 16 years old without providing notice and obtaining consent.
This is just one of many proposals contained in legislation U.S. Sen. Ed Markey reintroduced earlier this month that would establish greater online privacy protections for children and teens. It would update the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 for the many changes the online world has seen in the last quarter-century.
Markey laid out his requests Friday at Suffolk University alongside Rochelle Walensky, director of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, during a forum on social media’s role on children’s mental health.
“For too long, big tech has put profits over privacy, money over mental health and greed over good,” Markey said. “Big tobacco damages our lungs. Big oil damages our environment. Big tech damages our young people.”
The proposed Children and Teens’ Online Privacy Protection Act would expand provisions found in the current version of the law, applicable to children ages 12 and under, to adolescents between the ages 13 and 16.
Markey introduced the amended bill in the Senate last year, but it didn’t receive much action besides being referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, of which he chairs. He voiced confidence that the legislation, receiving bipartisan support, would be passed this year.
If approved, teens and parents would be able to challenge the accuracy of personal information, and companies would be required to provide a way for the users to erase inaccurate data. Operators would also need to make sure they advertise such mechanisms.
The bill also looks to prohibit targeted marketing directed to a child or minor without the user’s consent.
“Data is the raw material that big tech uses to target, track and manipulate young people every single day. Big tech uses information about kids and teens, and it is used against them. It is an endless stream of toxic content that grabs their attention and keeps them scrolling.”
Walensky highlighted what she called “promising news,” with the CDC releasing data Thursday that showed a decline in emergency department visits amongst 12- to 17-year-olds from January 2019 through February 2023 for mental health-related conditions. The numbers, however, are well above pre-pandemic levels.
“These issues and behaviors persist at too high of a rate,” Walensky said. “It is critically important that we continue to track these data to understand what is happening and how and if our interventions are working.”
Kevin Simon is seeing crowded emergency rooms at Boston Children’s Hospital, where he works as a psychiatrist. Patients are showing up with eating disorders and worsening suicidality and depression, he said.
Simon is the the city of Boston’s first chief behavioral health officer, a role in which he leads a citywide behavioral health strategy to help those facing mental health challenges.
“There can be too much social media platforming engagement,” he said. “The engagement is just a momentary snapshot, it is not true real life yet people are comparing themselves to that.”