While all the major Silicon Valley social media firms—from Instagram to TikTok—say they block children from using their apps, these senators say those efforts have failed.
“It’s not working,” Schatz says.“There’s no free speech right to be jammed with an algorithm that makes you upset, and these algorithms are making us increasingly polarized and disparaging and depressed and angry at each other. And it’s bad enough that it’s happening to all of us adults, the least we can do is protect our kids.”
While the measure’s sponsored by progressive Democrats and one of the most ardent conservatives in the Senate, lawmakers from across the ideological spectrum are equally skeptical of the proposal, showing the difficult road ahead for passing any new media measure, including those aimed at children. Many lawmakers are torn between protecting kids online and preserving the robust internet as we know it. Naturally, most senators are looking at their own families for guidance.
“My grandkids have flip phones. They don’t have smartphones until they get older,” senator Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican, says. Romney—who’s open to the idea, if initially dubious—says there’s not even uniformity in his own family on these issues.
“I have five sons, so there are five different families and they do have different approaches,” Romney says. “And the youngest son is the one that’s most strict, and the oldest son didn’t really think of it as being such a big deal.”
For Smith, the Minnesota senator worried about her party coming across as Big Sister, there wasn’t even uniformity in her own household when her boys were fighting over the family’s first desktop computer ages ago. And her kids also proved to be (mini)hackers.
“We were trying to figure out how to monitor their interactions with the computer, and we quickly figured out that, at least for them, it was hard to put hard and fast rules, because kids find a way,” Smith says. “And different parents have different rules for what they think is the right thing for their kids.”
While Smith is open to the new measure, she’s wary. “I tend to be, I guess, a little bit suspicious of hard and fast rules, because I’m not sure that they work and because I sort of think that parents and kids should have the freedom to decide what’s right for their family,” Smith says.
While Smith is a progressive Democrat, on this new measure, she’s currently aligned with senator Rand Paul, a Libertarian-leaning Kentucky Republican. “Parents exercise some oversight of what their kids view on the internet, what they view on television, all these things are important. I’m not sure I want the federal government [involved],” Paul says.
The new measure also has competition. Just last week senators Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, and South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, reintroduced their EARN IT Act—the Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act. That measure would strip away the current Section 230 protections for any sites that publish online child sexual exploitation content. Section 230 remains a highly controversial law because it protects online businesses from liability for much of what its users post on their platforms.