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Protecting kids online could start at the app store

Updated: Jan 8

This Christmas, Santa brought my 16 year old a new phone, which caused a bit of jealousy in his younger, more irresponsible brother.


Deciding when to let your child jump into that tech world is not easy. No matter how many rules your family may have, it is still natural to worry about what your children will find, or who they’ll talk to, online.

It has been more than a quarter century since Congress passed a law to protect kids online. In 1998, less than half the country was even connected to the internet, and those who were likely used AOL. There was no Facebook. There was no social media.


Today, more than half of teenagers say it would be difficult to give up their social media time, according to Pew Research polling. Half of parents are worried about what their child is being exposed to online.


As legislatures convene here at home and across the country, there will no doubt be an onslaught of proposed laws aimed at protecting kids online. Few will doubt the good intentions of these proposed policies.


In Idaho last session, a bill would have required “manufacturers of internet-capable devises to install and active technology that enables parents to make filtering decisions.”


A new law in Utah requires social media companies to obtain parental consent for those under 18. And if the parent does consent, they are given full access to their child’s social media accounts.


Meantime, Colorado’s governor says he would not back state-imposed restrictions. And other states have a bevy of restrictions and proposed laws.


Social media and the internet are very much mobile. It would be nearly impossible for companies to create 50 different oversight mechanisms to comply with every state’s preference. And even if they did, teens and families move fluidly across state lines. A patchwork of laws would mean they are inconsistently protected.


That’s why, at the very least, Congress needs to work with tech providers to create a standard for the national marketplace to ensure uniform protection for kids’ online health and safety.


One idea put forward by Meta – the parent company of Facebook – is to require parental consent for teens under 16 at the app store level. What does this mean? Essentially, parents would have to approve any download of an app other than general items such as search or email. Age verification would be completed at the app store level – which would ensure kids are placed in the appropriate app experience. All apps would need to be treated consistently.


Another proposal would require ad targeting standards that would limit the personalization of ads to those under 16 to age and location only. This means advertisers and videos that may be questionable could not be targeted to kids under 16.


These are common sense proposals that recognize the complexity of the issue. There will likely be many more on the way.


We need to protect kids online while not stifling innovation and advancement in the coming years. A patchwork of laws is messy. One national standard that puts parents, not the government, in the driver's seat, would be best.

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