Biden SOTU: Social Media Are Experimenting on Children for Profit

(Image credit: C-SPAN)

As expected, President Joe Biden used his State of the Union speech to back a congressional effort to regulate how online edge platforms interact with the youngest Web surfers, including by banning certain targeted advertising to children.

The President minced no words, suggesting that social media was putting the bottom line ahead of children's health. 

"Children were struggling before the pandemic," he told his audience, citing "bullying, violence, trauma, and the harms of social media. 

"As Frances Haugen, who is here with us tonight, has shown, we must hold social media platforms accountable for the national experiment they’re conducting on our children for profit," he continued, "thanking her for the courage she showed as she stood for applause. "It’s time to strengthen privacy protections, ban targeted advertising to children, and demand tech companies stop collecting personal data on our children." 

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) chair of the Senate Consumer Protection subcommittee, big Big Tech critic and chief sponsor of the Kids Online Safety Act, praised the President's take on protecting children online.

“President Biden is issuing a powerful call to action on the youth mental health crisis exacerbated by social media, addressed directly by my Kids Online Safety Act," said Blumenthal. "I’m leading this measure with Senator [Marsha] Blackburn [R-Tenn.] so kids and parents are empowered with tools and safeguards to protect against toxic online content like self-harm, eating disorders, and bullying—and to hold Big Tech accountable. This comprehensive bill culminates bipartisan hearings, and decades of work for me personally. I look forward to pushing for its swift passage to safeguard children online, putting them in better control of their online lives.”

House Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) agreed that social media needed regulating, but suggested the President was joining a fight Republicans were already leading. 

“Big Tech must be held accountable for their utter disregard for people’s privacy and data security and well-being—especially our children, who are consistently being manipulated and exploited for profit by these companies," Morris said following the speech. "Protecting kids online starts by establishing a national privacy and data security framework and enacting legislation that stops Big Tech’s harmful abuse of power. 

“Since day one of this Congress, E&C Republicans have been leading on solutions to do just that, and have urged President Biden to take these concerns seriously. I welcome President Biden joining our call and urge my Democratic committee colleagues to stop dragging their feet and prioritize comprehensive privacy legislation and addressing Big Tech’s harm on kids. If Congressional Democrats truly want to promote Big Tech transparency and accountability, protect our kids, and strengthen privacy protections for Americans, they should start by reviewing and engaging with Republican’s on our solutions.” 

The President's backing of social media regulation also drew praise from a number of children's privacy advocates. 

"We applaud President Biden for recognizing what the Big Tech CEOs willfully deny, that their products and platforms play an important role in defining the future of this country," said Nicole Gill, co-founder and executive director of Accountable Tech. "The White House’s support for reforms like strengthening children’s privacy, banning surveillance advertising for children and young people online, and demanding algorithmic transparency and research access demonstrates the time is now to rein in Big Tech and hold these companies accountable for their role in the decline of young people's mental health."

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"Children and teens need to be protected from surveillance advertising that identifies, tracks, profiles, and discriminates against them continuously," said Katharina Kopp, policy director at Center for Digital Democracy. "Digital marketers employ stealthy 'Big Data' tactics to manipulate young people, while also gathering their information gleaned from mobile phones, gaming platforms, and social media. The Center for Digital Democracy supports calls for Congress to enact legislation that guards the privacy of youth, bans surveillance advertising, institutes online safety by design, stops online discrimination, and invests in research to serve the best interest of children and teens."

"President Biden is right to name and lay out a platform to address the dire national youth mental health crisis," said Bethany Robertson, co-director, ParentsTogether. "A significant and growing body of research shows 'almost constant' social media use significantly harms kids’ mental health in a number of ways, including increasing depression and anxiety, lowering self-esteem and body image, and triggering addictive behaviors – resulting in mental and emotional harm, and even death. This crisis is being driven by social media companies’ dangerous-by-design features, rooted in profit above kids’ safety. We urge social media companies and Congress to take quick, decisive action to protect kids..." ■

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.