Internet bill would force tech firms to keep inappropriate content from children

WASHINGTON — Parents no longer have to worry only about whether their children are seeking out violent or harmful content on the internet. Increasingly, the inappropriate content is finding the children, through features like auto-play videos and push alerts that coax users to spend more time glued to the screen.

Digital safety advocates say that’s why they are pushing Congress to pass a bill requiring app and website developers to stop using these “manipulative” tactics with users younger than 16.

The bill, which is backed by Common Sense Media, a San Francisco advocacy group, would be the most sweeping children’s internet law of its kind. It would create regulations subjecting youth-oriented online content to more rigorous scrutiny, like television programming.

Proponents warn that online design features and gimmicks often expose toddlers and young children to obscene, violent and unsettling content without a parent’s knowledge, and can create addictive patterns of digital behavior.

They say the bill would catch up with two decades of unchecked growth in the digital space, which they say has become a virtual “Wild West” for children’s content.

What the Kids Act would do

A new bill in Congress, known as the KIDS Act, would be the most sweeping federal law to regulate children’s exposure to potentially harmful and addictive digital content. Here is what some of its key requirements, which would apply to sites targeting children under age 16, would do:

Ban auto-play video settings, which automatically launch additional video content after a user’s selected video has ended.

Ban push alerts, features that encourage users to open an app they aren’t using.

Ban badges and other rewards that are linked to how much time a user spends online.

Prohibit websites and apps from promoting or recommending videos that involve sexual material, physical or emotional violence and gambling, or that are wholly commercial in nature.

Create a tool on all websites for users to report harmful content recommended to children.

Prohibit websites from recommending videos that include influencers or content characters marketing a product, such as popular “unboxing” videos where a person opens a new product.

Prohibit websites from recommending ads for nicotine, tobacco or alcohol.

Ban ads that include embedded interactive elements, such as stickers or pop-ups.

Require websites and apps to keep a public list of all viewable or playable content on their platforms.

Have Congress create a grant program, starting with $4 million in 2021, to fund the creation of educational, ad-free children’s online content.

Source: Bill text, Common Sense Media

According to a survey conducted by Common Sense, about 98% of children younger than 8 have access to a smartphone or tablet at home. A majority have a smartphone by age 11 and average about five hours of screen time daily.

Dr. Jenny Radesky, a developmental behavioral pediatrician at the University of Michigan Medical School, said the bill would create guardrails for digital media, so the job of keeping inappropriate content from children doesn’t fall entirely to parents.

Parents should monitor how much time their children spend online and what they’re viewing, but tech companies have a responsibility not to let their design features point children at harmful or manipulative content, Radesky said.

“I want to take that urgency of (parents’) self-blame and kind of turn it outward,” Radesky said. “We can raise savvier kids, if we don’t get them accustomed to always eating garbage, essentially.”

The bill is expected to face opposition from large tech companies, for whom profit growth is directly linked to increased user screen time. YouTube and Facebook declined to comment on the bill; Apple didn’t respond to a request.

The bill, S3411, was introduced this month by Democratic Sens. Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.

It would ban many common design features on apps and websites for children and early teens. Those include videos that automatically play another video after one the user selected ends, push alerts that prompt users to open an app they aren’t using, and virtual badges or stickers that reward users for spending more time online.

Supporters of the bill say those design features exploit children’s developmental differences, including their susceptibility to positive reinforcement and weaker impulse control to addiction.

“Today, kids’ faces are increasingly covered in the glow of their screens, and it’s time to face the chilling reality that some websites and apps today are built in ways that harm children,” Markey said in a statement.

“As a society, we’re playing catch-up to the serious risks to kids online,” he said.

The bill would require platforms such as YouTube or TikTok to alter how they recommend and promote content to children by changing their algorithms. It would prohibit suggestion of violent, sexual or other inappropriate videos.

While website developers cannot always track users’ ages, supporters of the bill say they could do more to ensure their algorithms don’t recommend inappropriate content.

And not every website would be affected — the bill would apply to websites and apps “directed at children,” determined by factors like subject matter, visual content, use of cartoon characters and audience composition.

The Federal Trade Commission, which promotes consumer protections, would be charged with enforcing the law. It would audit the largest children’s platforms and report findings to Congress.

Amina Fazlullah, policy counsel for Common Sense Media and mother of a toddler, said many parents are shocked to discover the kinds of videos some sites promote to children.

She cited Peppa Pig, a British cartoon that has been targeted by popular spoof videos on YouTube and other sites. In knockoff adult versions, Peppa is shown drinking Clorox bleach or stabbing herself in the head.

Fazlullah said websites could stop promoting such videos by changing their algorithms that target viewers of children’s content.

“Outrageous stuff goes viral,” she said. “This (bill) is a very sort of light touch where you say, ‘Please don’t push the worst of the worst on kids.’”

Another provision targets what proponents call “manipulative” advertising gimmicks. It would ban ads that use influencers or “host” characters, those featured in related content, to promote products to children.

Hany Farid, a computer science professor at UC Berkeley, said this type of advertising and the addictive design features used by many websites and apps are “100% intentional” on the part of Big Tech.

“Protecting children, protecting society clearly has not been a priority,” he said of Silicon Valley firms. “Their No. 1 priority is to optimize eyeballs because that’s what makes money. Let’s stop pretending otherwise.”

Dustin Gardiner is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @dustingardiner

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