In a new policy brief from the Institute for Family Studies (IFS) and the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC), we present the current harms to children caused and facilitated by smartphones (and tablets) and the app stores they host, driven by Big Tech companies’ financial incentives that misalign with the welfare of kids. The device-and-app-store industry has been virtually unregulated, especially for child safety. The brief offers several possible solutions for lawmakers and industry leaders to implement, which ensure devices and their app stores are safer for children and bring much-needed accountability.
Recently, there has been significant attention given to the harms of social media and online pornography for children, galvanizing lawmakers across several states to enact laws to require age verification of pornography sites(blocking individuals under the legal age of 18 from gaining access) and parental consent for minors to open social media accounts (i.e., form online contracts). At the federal level, three bipartisan bills to better protect kids online have gained momentum, the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA), COPPA 2.0, and the EARN IT Act. These measures are critical; however, they only address one level of the problem: the website (or platform). We fully support and have effectively contributed to this policy work, but will argue that it is now necessary to open up another front to address the threats to child safety online—directing attention toward the devices that serve as children’s main portals to the internet and social media platforms (and a myriad of other apps).
We strongly advise parents, individually and as groups, to resist providing their kids a smartphone or tablet. Given how unsafe these devices are, they should be avoided and delayed until as close to adulthood as possible. We realize that, in many cases, such strong measures are not possible. This brief thus addresses the question of policy solutions that can be implemented to regulate smartphones and tablets to make them safer for kids and to ensure these devices provide an age-appropriate experience of apps and the internet for children. To that end, this brief takes a comprehensive assessment of the current situation, proceeding with a review of the legal landscape, arguing for device regulation and app store reform, and calling for specific actions by Congress, state lawmakers, and enforcement entities, like the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and state attorneys general. For some solutions, we appeal to the companies themselves to make certain changes proactively, where lawmakers are limited by the First Amendment from mandating such requirements. Collectively, these measures all seek to accomplish two main goals: (1) make the devices and app stores safer for children by design and (2) correct companies’ misaligned incentives that have fostered the current lawless conditions by opening these companies up to both litigation and competition.
We advise Congress to consider the following requirements for device manufacturers and app stores:
- Verify age on the device;
- Automatically enable family-friendly device defaults for minor users (especially device filters to block obscenity);
- Prohibit apps and app stores from displaying obscene ads to children;
- Amend device certification Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requirements;
- Open up litigation by amending the Federal Trade Commission Act; and
- Open up competition in the app store market (requiring interoperability and side-loading of apps and other app stores).
We advise states to legislate the following requirements for device manufacturers and app stores:
- Verify age on the device;
- Automatically enable family-friendly device defaults for minor users (especially device filters to block obscenity); and
- Open up litigation by amending existing state deceptive or unfair trade practices statutes (“Little FTC Acts”).
We advise device manufacturers and app stores to take the following steps proactively, and failing to do that, we would call upon the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and state attorneys general to seek such requirements as part of future settlement agreements:
- Adopt new, accurate age-rating systems for informed parental consent and other app store features for child safety;
- Prevent mature ads from running in apps rated for minors and stop mature apps from being advertised to children in the app stores;
- Provide additional “school mode” and “bedtime mode” settings to be made available as parental controls on devices; and
- Provide a “child safe” setting to be made available on devices (to be implemented on a parent’s or family/shared devices).
In this IFS/EPPC brief, these above recommendations are treated as larger categories encompassing several discrete measures that respond to different facets of the problem. We provide direction on implementation and weigh the various strengths and weaknesses of each approach. As the reader will find, there is no one silver bullet solution to recommend. Rather, a serious approach to addressing these problems will require comprehensive action at multiple levels. If nothing else, this is an opportunity for lawmakers, attorneys general, and even Big Tech itself to do the right thing. This brief serves as a guide for just that.
Download the IFS/EPPC policy brief here.