Children Online Safety Legislation (OCASL) – A Primer

Alice Marwick, Jacob Smith, Robyn Caplan, Meher Wadhawan

The Bulletin of Technology & Public Life

Digital Infrastructures, Political Processes

A range of approaches to child online safety legislation (COSL) is being proposed, debated, or implemented at both the federal and state level in the United States. While the specifics of these bills differ, they coalesce around concerns regarding the effects of social media on young people. This document:

  • Explains these concerns, why they have surfaced now, and how COSL purports to solve them.

  • Outlines major international, US federal and state legislative efforts, particularly the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA).

  • Summarizes the primary frames by which COSL is justified—mental health, sexual exploitation and abuse, eating disorders and self-harm, and social media addiction—and evaluates the evidence for each.

  • Outlines concerns that researchers, activists, and technologists have with these bills: age verification, privacy and surveillance, First Amendment rights, and expansion of parental control over young people’s rights and autonomy.

While the impetus for this legislation is well-meaning, we question the assumptions behind it. Mental health and well-being is complicated, and tied to many different social and contextual factors. Solutions that exclusively focus on technology address only a very small part of this picture. The granular debate over the evidence linking smartphones and social media to youth well-being distracts us from the real difficulties faced by young people.

COSL poses enormous potential risks to privacy and free expression, and will limit youth access to social connections and important community resources while doing little to improve the mental health of vulnerable teenagers. Ultimately, legislation like KOSA is an attempt to regulate the technology industry when other efforts have failed, using moral panic and for-the-children rhetoric to rapidly pass poorly-formulated legislation.

We strongly believe that reform of social platforms and regulation of technology is needed. We need comprehensive privacy legislation, limits on data collection, interoperability, more granular individual and parental guidance tools, and advertising regulation, among other changes. Offline, young people need spaces to socialize without adults, better mental health care, and funding for parks, libraries, and extracurriculars. But rather than focusing on such solutions, KOSA and similar state bills empower parents rather than young people, do little to curb the worst abuses of technology corporations, and enable an expansion of the rhetoric that is currently used to ban books, eliminate diversity efforts in education, and limit gender affirming and reproductive care. They will eliminate important sources of information for vulnerable teenagers and wipe out anonymity on the social web. While we recognize the regulatory impulse, the forms of child safety legislation currently circulating will not solve the problems they claim to remedy.