The American Consumer Institute (ACI) recently released a policy primer on the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA), in which we discuss different research and policy considerations surrounding the proposed legislation. ACI found that many aspects of the bill would either replicate existing options or do not have enough research to support the changes. Proponents of the bill argue it is necessary to combat the rise in mental illness among young people, for which they blame social media. However, critics counter that it risks infringing upon Americans’ privacy rights.

KOSA is part of a wave of proposed changes to internet policy. As KOSA has evolved over time through new revisions, it has improved in some ways such as walking back age mandate requirements and clarifying that the duty of care provision should not prevent children from finding help.

However, the legislation also continues to have many problems. For example, it would duplicate existing options for parental controls and is based off of premature assumptions about the connection between social media and mental illness.

The Good:

  • Study Mandates for Age Verification – KOSA would avoid mandating a specific age verification method. All existing age verification methods come with tradeoffs between accuracy and privacy. Many would require companies to collect more data from minors than they already do.
  • Revised Duty of Care Provision – The “duty of care” section, which establishes that social media platforms have an obligation to keep young people from finding harmful material, was revised. This was done to ensure that KOSA would not unintentionally block access to important online resources used to treat problems like substance abuse and eating disorders. The change was made through an additional rule which would expressly forbid KOSA from being used in this way. However, there are concerns that the duty of care would still chill efforts to bring evidence-based information to minors who may need it.
  • Orders for Studies on Social Media’s Effects on Minors – To date, the research has been inconclusive with some showing a correlation between mental health issues and heavy internet use; but there is not clear causational relationship. In addition, many such studies are based on old data from before the internet became mainstream, which wouldn’t be reflective of current experiences. This lack of evidence means that lawmakers don’t have sufficient information to pass more extensive regulations. KOSA would attempt to contribute to existing research by requiring independent studies by the National Academy of Sciences to determine the potential harms social media poses to young people. These would include a study to be conducted shortly after KOSA is enacted, followed by another four years later to incorporate any new evidence.

The Bad:

  • Many Safeguards Are Duplicative of Existing Options – KOSA proposes several safeguards for minors such as limiting the ability of other users to message the account holder and options for parents to control their children’s online activities. Such requirements duplicate options that already exist either through the social media platforms themselves or through parental control software.
  • Bad Assumptions About Mental Health Crisis – Proponents of KOSA argue that social media has directly contributed to the rise of mental health issues among young people. Despite studies showing a weak or moderate correlation between the two; there is not enough evidence to show causality. While requiring further research on the relationship between social media and mental health is a good thing, lawmakers must remain objective. Ideally, all research should be done before imposing new rules on social media platforms.
  • Enforcement Powers Are Too Broad – The current version of KOSA would make companies liable for any feature that could be deemed addictive to kids. The problem is that it’s unclear whether common features such as push notifications, the notifications that show up directly at the top of a phone, would be included in this definition. It risks making otherwise legal and harmless material suspect to further scrutiny.
  • A Prohibition on “Dark Patterns” Is Premature – KOSA would prohibit so-called “dark patterns” designed to steer users’ decision-making in a certain way. The problem with this prohibition is that dark patterns are not yet well defined, and it is unclear where the line is between benign reminders and harassment.

Possible Solutions:  

  • Dark Patterns – Rather than prohibiting anything considered to be a dark pattern, lawmakers should clearly define dark patterns to focus on intentionally misleading design choices.
  • Data-Driven Legislation – Instead of enacting new rules prior to commissioning studies on the relationship between social media use and teenage mental health, a wide range of research should be conducted first. Only after there is sufficient supportive evidence should the issue be revisited, and new legislation drafted. Legislation made before knowing the relationship between social media and mental illness among young people would be an example of ex ante legislation, which may miss the mark on the actual relationship or create new issues. More focused ex post legislation would do more to target the actual issue, aided by the knowledge of what the relationship is.

Trey Price is a policy analyst with the American Consumer Institute, a nonprofit education and research organization. For more information about the Institute, visit us at www.TheAmericanConsumer.Org or follow us on X @ConsumerPal.