The United States is experiencing an unprecedented youth mental health crisis. More than half of parents express concern over their children’s mental well-being, and there is now undeniable evidence that social media and other online platforms have contributed to our youth mental health crisis. The number of children and adolescents with anxiety and depression has risen nearly 30% in recent years. Between 2011 and 2021, the number of teens and young adults with depression more than doubled. According to the CDC, in 2021, 42% of high school students reported experiencing persistent feelings of sadness, including 57% of girls and 69% of LGBQ+ students, and nearly 1 in 3 high school girls reported having seriously considered suicide. Children are subject to the platforms’ excessive data collection, which they use to deliver sensational and harmful content and troves of paid advertising. And online platforms often use manipulative design techniques embedded in their products to promote addictive and compulsive use by young people to generate more revenue. Social media use in schools is affecting students’ mental health and disrupting learning. Advances in artificial intelligence could make these harms far worse, especially if not developed and deployed responsibly. Far too often, online platforms do not protect minors who use their products and services, even when alerted to the abuses experienced online.
President Biden has made tackling the mental health crisis a top priority, and he continues to call on Congress to pass legislation that would strengthen protections for children’s privacy, health and safety online. Today, during Mental Health Awareness Month, the Biden-Harris Administration is announcing additional actions to safeguard children’s privacy, health, and safety from online harms. These actions build upon the U.S. Surgeon-General’s new Advisory on Social Media and Youth Mental Health, which describes the current evidence of the impacts of social media on children and adolescents, and states that we cannot conclude social media is sufficiently safe for children. The new Administration actions include:
- The Department of Health and Human Services, through the Assistant Secretary of Substance Use and Mental Health Administration and in close partnership with the Department of Commerce, will lead an interagency Task Force on Kids Online Health & Safety to advance the health, safety and privacy of minors online with particular attention to preventing and mitigating the adverse health effects of online platforms on minors. It will identify current and emerging risks of harm to minors associated with online platforms, as well as potential health benefits of using online platforms. It will recommend measures and methods for assessing, preventing, and mitigating such harms; develop a research agenda regarding online harms and health benefits to minors; and recommend best practices and technical standards for transparency reports and audits related to online harms to the privacy, health, and safety on children and teenagers.
This year, the Task Force will review the status of existing industry efforts and technologies to promote the health and safety of children and teenagers vis-à-vis their online activities, particularly with respect to their engagement in social media and other online platforms. It will also review and compile best practices to assist parents and legal guardians in protecting the privacy, health and safety of their children who use online platforms. By Spring 2024, the Task Force will develop voluntary guidance, policy recommendations, and a toolkit on safety-, health- and privacy-by-design for industry developing digital products and services.
- The Task Force will include senior representatives from the Department of Education, the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Trade Commission, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Office of the Surgeon-General, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Children and Families, the Domestic Policy Council, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the National Economic Council, and the Gender Policy Council.
- The Task Force will consult with a diverse array of experts and stakeholders, including: health professionals, including specialists in child development; child advocacy center professionals; privacy, civil liberties, and civil rights experts; parents, children and teenagers; scholars, civil society, and technologists and engineers with expertise in mental health and the prevention of harms to minors, behavioral economics and harm avoidance, teens use of social media, and persuasive design; elementary and secondary school educators and administrators; representatives of online platforms, including product designers, and other industry as appropriate; state attorneys general; representatives of communities of socially disadvantaged individuals; and U.S. international partners.
- The Department of Education will promote and enhance the privacy of minor students’ data and address concerns about the monetization of that data by commercial entities, including by planning to commence a rulemaking under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). To further advance these objectives, following publication of final FERPA regulations, the Department of Education will update its model FERPA notification and consent forms to ensure that they are clear and concise and will also provide best practice guidance to schools and school districts regarding FERPA and contracting with third-party vendors.
- The Department of Education, in consultation with the Department of Health and Human Services, the Surgeon-General, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Federal Trade Commission, will issue this year resources, model policies and voluntary best practices for school districts on the use of internet-enabled devices (both personal and school-provided) and services in elementary and secondary schools in order to promote and encourage local policies that improve digital health, safety, and citizenship practices and academic outcomes; and the acquisition of safe, healthy, and developmentally-appropriate digital literacy skills and habits for P-12 students.
- The Department of Commerce will promote efforts to prevent online harassment and abuse of children and youth through increased awareness of services and support for youth victims of online harassment and abuse, using funding made available by the Digital Equity Act, and will encourage state broadband administrators and other state digital equity leaders to pursue ways of preventing online harassment of children and youth as they craft their digital equity plans in connection with the State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program.
- The Department of Homeland Security, with the Department of Justice, will work with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) to create combined image repositories used to identify victims, as well as detect and investigate offenses involving child sexual abuse material. This work will complement the efforts by NCMEC to empower young people with a tool to help remove or stop the sharing of private images or videos taken of them before the age of 18, through the recently launched Take It Down platform.
These actions build on the Biden-Harris Administration’s record of action to address the harms America’s children and youth face online. Last year, the Department of Health and Human Services established a new Center of Excellence on Social Media and Mental Wellbeing to improve the mental health of children and teens by reducing the risks and leveraging the benefits of social media. The National Institutes of Health are investing further in research to better inform our understanding of the harms and identify solutions through the Children and Media Research Advancement Act. Through the White House Task Force to Address Online Harassment and Abuse, federal agencies are acting to prevent and address image-based sexual abuse, cyberstalking, and child sexual exploitation. The FTC is considering rulemaking to tackle commercial surveillance, and is also undertaking a review of its Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) Rule, which protects kids’ data privacy. The FTC also recently reached a landmark settlement with a popular gaming platform over allegations it violated COPPA, that required a payment by the company of more than $500 million, banned its use of dark patterns, and required the company to adopt privacy-protective default settings for kids and teens.