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Kids, Phones, and Porn

As technology continues to progress, so does the number of young children who have cell phones (often with little to no supervision). Whether children seek out harmful content or not, cell phones and social media can be quite dangerous if not used in a healthy way.

This week on Family Policy Matters, host Traci DeVette Griggs welcomes Clare Morell, Director of the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s Technology and Human Flourishing Project, to discuss how cell phones and social media are harming children and what we can do about it.

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Family Policy Matters
Transcript: Kids, Phones, and Porn

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Have you ever stopped to think what your childhood would have been like if you were subjected to the constant scrutiny from social media that children of today are experiencing? What if that one particular embarrassing moment that you may remember was broadcast to your entire school? And what if someone made a meme out of it, and it went viral worldwide? Can we even imagine how the threat of that would amplify what is already a very difficult time of life for many people? Well, Clare Morell spends her days as a Senior Policy Analyst at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where she directs the Technology and Human Flourishing Project, and we’re grateful to have her here today to talk about these kinds of impacts of technology on minors and what we might be able to do to help mitigate that impact. Clare Morell, welcome to Family Policy Matters.

CLARE MORELL: Thank you so much for having me.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: All right. So beyond the potential of embarrassment, what are some of the impacts of technology and social media use, especially on minors?

CLARE MORELL: So more and more research has come out showing that there’s actually an impact on their brains and brain development. The social media notifications and the frequent social rewards and dopamine hits that these platforms are providing to children’s young brains have been shown to be harmful for their normal development, that children’s brains, over time, are becoming increasingly hypersensitive to these types of social rewards. And it’s inhibiting the development of their prefrontal cortex, the front part of their brain responsible for self-control and impulse control, which basically means social media for kids has become like all gas with no brakes, it’s really increasingly wiring them towards these platforms with also a limiting of their ability to actually recognize when they’ve spent too much time on them. So there’s actually a neurological impact that these devices and social media and smartphones are having on minors.

It’s also harming their mental health; the evidence has been very clear that this is harmful for girls’ self-image and body image issues. And there’s been an increase in eating disorders, as well as anxiety and depression and suicide and self-harm rates in teens. And it all came about at the same time that social media really took off and became more addictive by the features they were using. So there’s a real actual impact on children’s development and mental and physical health coming from these platforms, not to mention all sorts of dangerous types of content that they are exposed to through the platforms. These platforms have become portals, really, to the dark holes of the Internet and very dangerous content for children. So there’s also a moral kind of spiritual impact just from the kinds of content they’re being exposed to.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Speaking of some of that dangerous content, we think about pornography. Why does that necessarily erupt at the same time that social media does?

CLARE MORELL: So there’s a kind of a strong symbiosis between social media and pornography. Social media has now kind of become often the first point of entry to pornography for children, because they’re often linked to adult websites or adult apps, like Only Fans that are promoted by social media apps to children. Also, a lot of these social media apps display or distribute pornographic content themselves. So they’re actually hosting and distributing porn and child exploitation materials. And they’re really not incentivized to take it down. They are under no legal requirements to remove that type of content from their platform. They are incentivized to do it by law in that if they do take down that content, they’re protected from liability for taking it down. But it’s really all carrot and no stick. There’s no obligation for them to remove it. And it’s not really in their business model incentives to do so because that type of content, unfortunately, the more elicit sensational content, is what keeps users coming back.

And so they don’t want to remove this type of content, even though children are being exposed to it, because it helps their profit margins. Because, again, their business model is built on extracting people’s time and attention and data. They want people to keep spending as much time as possible on their platform, so they’re not going to take it down. And the Wall Street Journal recently ran an article saying that Instagram has become pedophiles’ and predators’ app of choice because their algorithms. The very design of this app actually helps recommend accounts and posts with child exploitation material to these people. And so even the design of these products themselves, their algorithms are actively actually helping people to find this content on their sites. And so there is a strong connection between the two. And often, we’re seeing that children are now being really accidentally exposed to pornography through social media. And they’re coming across this not because they’re looking for it, but by accident. And so it’s a big problem, the connection between the two.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So you mentioned that they are not only accidentally coming across it, but it’s being actively promoted by these manufacturers of pornography. So I don’t understand how that cannot be illegal. Why the carrot and not more of the stick, to use your analogy?

CLARE MORELL: I think the challenge has been that Section 230 protects platforms for the third-party content that’s hosted on them. And so, unfortunately, too, pornography websites are now often protected because it’s not just content that they’re producing, but it’s user-generated content that is uploaded to the site. And we have said that there’s no legal liability for these platforms for content that they’re just hosting. And so it’s been a big challenge in the law. And so others like myself are working on policy solutions to try to reform Section 230 or to empower states with things that they can do in the meantime.

There are certainly legal challenges, and we may delve into that later. But related to the First Amendment, treating pornography as protected speech. And now obscenity is not protected. And in fact, the government has a compelling interest in protecting children from obscenity. But the challenge is trying to do that in a way that is not burdensome on adult speech. And so that has been the big legal hurdle of a lot of these things is proving different policy solutions and not be overly burdensome on adults. And so that has been one of the main challenges is that there are kind of unhelpful legal precedents in Section 230. And First Amendment challenges that make it, you would think it would be very easy to just outlaw this stuff, or hold companies responsible for it, but it actually is more challenging because of the legal situation.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So is there hope? Do you have some ideas as to how some of these difficulties can be addressed?

CLARE MORELL: Starting at the state level, you know, in the last year or so, we’ve seen a lot of states really stepping up to do more to protect kids online. And so even North Carolina just last year passed an age verification for pornography websites law. Other states like Virginia, Texas, Utah, Mississippi, and Arkansas have also passed these age verification for porn websites, and Louisiana. And this is a huge step in trying to address this problem because it would basically put a requirement on these websites to make sure that they’re not showing material to minors under the age of 18. And so I think, again, it’s going to likely have those laws be challenged in court. But I do feel like now is the time, and the more states that pass these laws, the better chance that we have of getting them heard at the criminal level of the Supreme Court to overturn some past precedents against age verification. There’s a case from basically 2004 that basically the court found that while the government had a compelling interest in protecting children from the content on these adult sites, age verification at that time was too burdensome on adults. And it was not the most least restrictive means. And I think now that the technology has changed so much, that’s no longer true. And so it is a good opportunity for states to pass these laws, and then hopefully get that precedent overturned and saying that age verification doesn’t need to be burdensome on adults, it can be done quickly, and protective of user privacy, and, importantly, then shield children from that type of content.

Another kind of corresponding solution is also something other states have passed, which is age verification, and parental consent for social media. Again, we’re seeing social media being an entry point to a lot of this type of content. And parents are often feeling like they’re powerless over keeping the child off social media or overseeing that because parents haven’t had to be involved. In fact, children could easily go behind parents’ backs and make up a false birthdate because the only thing you’d have to do to create a social media account is enter a birth date that says you’re over the age of 13. And so these laws, again, would actually require social media platforms to conduct age verification, and if a user is under the age of 18, they would have to obtain parental consent from that minor in order to get on social media. And so this would be really helping to empower parents, you know, rightfully would be authority that they have to protect their children. And so I think those are two things that I’m very encouraged by that we’ve seen in the last year at the state level. And I think more and more states will hopefully take up those solutions. And that can make a real difference in protecting kids.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS : Just to clarify the age verification that you mentioned originally when you’re talking about pornography websites, that’s not just writing down a birthday, right? There’s a little more to it than that?

CLARE MORELL: Yes, that’s right. I think what’s helpful in these laws is they’ve outlined what reasonable age verification methods would be used, and often, it is going to involve some type of government ID or something that actually verifies that this is the person’s age. So it cannot just simply be a person attesting to be a certain age, there actually has to be a verification process, either obtaining, you know, financial data like credit cards or bank account information or government ID. And again, I think also, these laws are very protective of user privacy because they make it very clear that the site cannot retain that personal information, but it needs to be deleted once the age is verified. And there are penalties, you know, if they’re found to retain it. So they’re crafted very well, you know, I’m talking to you right now about like North Carolina’s has that provision, they’re crafted very well to protect adult’s user privacy, while also actually being an effective age guard to make sure children aren’t able to bypass that process. But there are some steps that have to be provided to ensure that this person is actually an adult.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: What stops an older child, 16-17, from going to get their parent’s license and just putting that information in there?

CLARE MORELL: Great question. I think there’s probably always loopholes in these and that there’s not going to be a perfect solution where some savvy child couldn’t go the extra mile to get around it. But I think the more we can raise the barriers to them accessing that content and make it harder, the more we’re going to be able to protect children just in the sense that they’re actually going to have to provide some type of ID or verification. And again, I guess they could go steal their parents’ ID. But if parents are aware and engaged, and they’re trying to actually supervise their children, wouldn’t be as easy for them to just access that.

So, of course, there are ways that children can always try to find ways to get around these things. But what I’ve said is that it really puts a responsibility on the site to be actually trying to keep children off of the platform. And if they are found to have failed at that, and a minor is accessing that site or material, the laws also empower parents to be able to then actually bring lawsuits against these companies to hold them accountable. And that’s been lacking, parents have had no kind of recourse to hold companies accountable, and so this would really actually open these websites up to accountability. And so while yes, there’s probably no perfect foolproof solution, this would make a real difference in actually raising the barrier for kids to be able to access this type of stuff.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Okay, so you mentioned North Carolina has the age verification law. Do we also have parental consent? Is that something that you think we need?

CLARE MORELL: Not yet, but I would love to work with any North Carolina State legislators that are interested and just to kind of give you more information. We recently, to try to help state legislators in this effort, put out a model bill. I think it’s helpful sometimes for legislators to see a model. And so we put out kind of model legislative text if states are interested in adopting a parental consent for social media law, we’ve outlined that language, that’s available on our website along with an accompanying summary document that gives the main summary of why this bill is needed, and what it does, and challenges to be aware of to overcome in how you craft the bill. So we’ve tried to anticipate all the questions and answer those in the accompanying document. And both of those are available at EPPC.org on our Technology and Human Flourishing Project page. And so you can find those PDFs if you’re interested. But I would encourage North Carolina, keep the good work going after this age verification for porn sites law; I think the next strong step would be trying to introduce parental consent for social media.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: What’s after that? if we were to have both of those, is there something beyond that that you think could help?

CLARE MORELL: I have put out again, on that same project page, other ideas for ways to combat obscenity in terms of children accessing that online trying to hold companies accountable for transmitting obscenity into the state. So most states have ascending laws on the book; children can’t go into a brick-and-mortar store in the state and purchase obscenity, so high and actually translate and expand or amend those existing state laws to include holding the people transmitting it into the state accountable under those laws is another solution. So there’s certainly further measures that can be taken to try to hold people accountable to that transmission kind of law to hold people accountable for sending that harmful material to minors in your state, again, in a proposal called Four Proposals for States to Combat Obscenity Online. That’s also on that project page. So yes, I think there’s always more things we can do to be taking the fight further down the road.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: All right, sounds good. Clare Morell, Senior Policy Analyst at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Thanks so much for being with us today on Family Policy Matters.

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