In the real world, a teenager can’t go on a school field trip or join the volleyball team without a parent’s permission. The virtual world is a different story. Platforms like TikTok, Instagram and YouTube offer teens a steady scroll of sexual images and videos—not to mention a proliferating range of antisocial identities—without parents’ knowledge, consent, or protection.
Big Tech operates under a law that was designed before the age of social media and makes it hard for parents to control their kids’ online activity. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or Coppa, was passed in 1998 for an internet that is now a distant memory. Today, with a click or swipe, children can sign up for highly addictive social apps and games that expose them to everything from semipornographic images to online conversations with strangers. Parents don’t know when their kids are entering these dangerous digital playgrounds and can’t supervise them once they do.
It’s time to update Coppa to make it easier for parents to guide their children’s tech use and protect them from harmful content and communications. Congress should amend the law to require that all social media, online, and so-called metaverse companies first obtain the explicit and verified consent of a parent or legal guardian before allowing a minor to start an account. While Big Tech firms might caterwaul, this would be a simple step akin to know-your-customer laws in the financial sector, which use third-party application programming interfaces, or APIs, for identity verification.
Congress should also require that all social media and online accounts offer parents and guardians administrator-level privileges over a minor’s account. Parents could then monitor a much larger share of their children’s online activity and, if need be, revoke user privileges in the same way that company administrators supervise employees’ online accounts. These reforms would make it easier for parents to take appropriate action when children engage in harmful online behavior. Parents have real-world rights to decide who cares for and educates their children. They deserve them in cyberspace too.
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