Bill to limit children’s social media use has a big obstacle: the First Amendment
A bill intended to require children to get their parents' consent to use social media would require social media companies to verify the age of all of its users in New Jersey. (Amalie Hindash for New Jersey Monitor)
A new bill moving with lightning speed through the Legislature has a noble intention: to protect children from the toxicity of social media.
To get there, though, the bill would require social media companies to verify the age of all of its users in New Jersey. That means having to fork over your driver’s license to social media companies or using the same identity verification software now used to communicate online with the Internal Revenue Service.
So I, an adult man, can use Twitter? Hard pass.
One of the bill’s sponsors, Assemblyman Herb Conaway (D-Burlington), likened the proposed regulations to seat belt laws; they were seen as an inconvenience when they were first enacted, but they’ve made people safer and putting them on now seems like second nature, he said.
“Social media is with us. It is an important tool. Quite frankly, like most technology, it brings a lot of good, but where the bad is identified, it’s more than important for the government to take action,” he told me.
But there’s almost no way to keep social media away from children without also restricting free speech for adults. That’s why the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey is opposed, with its policy counsel, Joe Johnson, saying the bill would set up improper hurdles for everyone, not just minors.
“This bill would unnecessarily limit the ability of all people to engage in free speech on the internet and add significant burdens on individuals that are just trying to exercise their right to free speech. Each of these burdensome requirements will make it more likely that both adults and children are much less likely to use these sites,” Johnson told lawmakers Monday.
The U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled on this, saying in a 1997 ruling striking down a federal anti-pornography bill that protecting minors from obscenity “does not justify an unnecessarily broad suppression of speech addressed to adults.”
There’s another issue: The system that legislators have envisioned would risk our personal information getting into the hands of people we’d rather keep it away from. Amy Bos, representing tech trade group Net Choice, referenced the latter danger when she spoke against the bill during a Monday hearing of the Assembly’s health committee.
“Compliance will be nearly impossible without gathering and retaining New Jerseyans’ sensitive personally identifiable information. The more information a website collects, the greater the risk of sensitive information getting in the wrong hands,” Bos said.
Yes, I know: It’s rich for tech companies that already collect our personal information to express qualms about collecting even more of it. The group — its members include Google, TikTok, and the parent company of Facebook and Instagram — is probably more concerned about being forced to implement age verification systems. But even if they’re insincere, it doesn’t mean they’re wrong.
I have no doubt Conaway and the bill’s other supporters are sincere when they say they want to protect children from the horrors of social media. And I share that desire: The thought of my young niece and nephew being exposed to the poison I see daily on Twitter or Instagram — not to mention the social media sites they know about that I don’t — makes me queasy.
But this is an issue that’s beyond the control of the New Jersey Legislature. In fact, it may be beyond anyone’s control. If my experience with children and technology has taught me anything, it’s that almost any child will quickly find a way around whatever roadblock we put between them and the internet.
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