Federal and State Legislation Intended to Maximize the Safety of Minors on the Internet
The digital age has brought untold benefits to our lives, dramatically increasing our ability to connect with others and putting the whole world virtually at our fingertips. But it’s also brought unexpected dangers, particularly to our children, who often lack the tools and resources to protect themselves online. The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated the concerns of parents, who spent a year or two seeing how their children were living their online lives.
Fortunately, legislators listened to parental concerns more than 20 years ago, when the internet was still somewhat in its infancy. There have been federal laws on the books since 1998 geared specifically to protecting the privacy and other rights of children online. In addition, some states have enacted laws to provide a safer digital environment for minors.
Federal Laws Protecting the Online Safety of Children
In the mid-to-late 1990s, as internet use was growing exponentially in the United States, a number of groups petitioned Congress for new laws specifically geared toward data collection and use practices on the internet. At the time, few websites had any notion of online privacy, and virtually none had any type of policy regarding the privacy of visitors. Congress responded with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which was signed by President Clinton in 1998 and went into effect in April 2000. The key component of COPPA is its requirement that any website directed at children under the age of 13 must obtain parental consent before collecting information from a child. COPPA aims to ensure that parents retain control over information collected from children under the age of 13.
Among other things, COPPA has an impact on the online platforms teachers can use as part of a curriculum. Also, due to the cost and work of complying with COPPA, many social media sites restrict children under the age of 13 from using their platform.
In 2000, Congress passed additional legislation intended to protect minors on the internet. The Children’s Internet Protection Act requires certain libraries and K-12 schools to purchase and employ “technology protection measure(s)” on every computer with an internet connection. Under CIPA, the following content must be filtered or blocked on school or library computers used by minors
- Content that qualifies as obscene under federal law
- Child pornography, as defined by federal law
- Content that is “harmful” to minors
Under CIPA, a minor is anyone who has not reached the age of 17. CIPA also requires schools and libraries to ensure the safety and security of minors when they’re using email, chat rooms, and other direct forms of online communication.
State Efforts to Protect Children Online
Though many states have taken steps to promote a more secure environment for minors online, recent legislation in California and Utah have added new twists.
The California statute, known as the Age Appropriate Design Code Act, governs any website “likely to be accessed” by a minor, defined in the law as anyone under the age of 18. The law mandates basic changes in platform design for all such websites, requiring consideration of design features that encourage or tolerate bullying, exploitation, or inappropriate content. The law compels websites to employ new default settings for minors, provide tools to parents for managing preferences, and minimize manipulative content intended to keep a minor using a product.
The state of Utah recently enacted legislation protecting children who use social media sites and platforms. Under the Utah statute, a minor must have parental consent in order to have an individual social media account. The law further mandates tools that give parents more control over a minor child’s social media account, and it prevents children from using social media between the hours of 10:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m.