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Kids, Phones, and Porn

Family Policy Matters / NC Family Policy
The Truth Network Radio
November 13, 2023 12:41 pm

Kids, Phones, and Porn

Family Policy Matters / NC Family Policy

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November 13, 2023 12:41 pm

This week on Family Policy Matters, host Traci DeVette Griggs welcomes Clare Morell, Director of the Ethics and Public Policy Center's Technology and Human Flourishing Project, to discuss how cell phones and social media are harming children and what we can do about it. 

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Welcome to Family Policy Matters, an engaging and informative weekly radio show and podcast produced by the North Carolina Family Policy Council. You are now equipped to be a voice of persuasion for family values in your community, state, and nation. And now here is our host of Family Policy Matters, Tracy Devitt Griggs.

Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Have you ever stopped to think what your childhood would have been like if you were subject to the constant scrutiny from social media that children of today are experiencing? What if that one particular embarrassing moment that you may remember was broadcast to your entire school?

And what if someone made a meme out of it and it went viral worldwide? Can we even imagine how the threat of that would amplify what is already a very difficult time of life for many people? Claire Morrell spends her days as a senior policy analyst at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where she directs the Technology and Human Flourishing Project, and we're grateful to have her here today to talk about these kinds of impacts of technology on minors and what we might be able to do to help mitigate that impact. Claire Morrell, welcome to Family Policy Matters. Thank you so much for having me.

All right. So beyond the potential of embarrassment, what are some of the impacts of technology and social media use, especially on minors? So more and more research has come out showing that there is actually an impact on their brains and brain development. The social media notifications and the frequent social rewards and dopamine hit that these platforms are providing to children's young brains have been shown to be harmful for their normal development, that children's brains over time are becoming increasingly hypersensitive to these types of social rewards. And it's inhibiting the development of their prefrontal cortex, the front part of their brain responsible for self control and impulse control, which basically means social media for kids has become like all gas with no brakes. It's really increasingly wiring them towards these platforms with also a limiting of their ability to actually recognize when they've spent too much time on them. So there's actually a neurological impact that these devices and social media smartphones are having on minors. It's also harming their mental health.

The evidence has been very clear that this is harmful for girls' self image and body image issues. And there's been an increase in eating disorders, as well as anxiety and depression and suicide and self harm rates in teens. And it all came about at the same time that social media really took off and became more addictive by the features they were using. So there's a real actual impact on children's development and mental and physical health coming from these platforms, not to mention the all sort of dangerous types of content that they are exposed to through the platform. These platforms have become portals really through the dark holes of the internet and very dangerous content for children. So there's also a moral kind of spiritual impact just from the kinds of content they're being exposed to. Speaking of some of that dangerous content, we think about pornography.

Why does that necessarily erupt at the same time that social media does? So there's a kind of a strong symbiosis between social media and pornography. Social media has now kind of become often the first point of entry to pornography for children because they're often linked to adult websites or adult apps like OnlyFans that are promoted by social media apps to children.

Also, a lot of these social media apps display or distribute pornographic content themselves. So they're actually hosting and distributing porn and child exploitation materials, and they're really not incentivized to take it down. They are under no legal requirements to remove that type of content from their platforms. They are incentivized to do it by law in that if they do take down that content, they are protected from liability for taking it down.

But it's really all carrot and no stick. There's no obligation for them to remove it. And it's not really in their business model incentives to do so because that type of content, unfortunately, the more elicit sensational content is what keeps users coming back. And so they don't want to remove this type of content, even though children are being exposed to it because it helps their profit margins. Because, again, their business model is built on extracting people's time and attention and data.

They want people to keep spending as much time as possible on their platform so they're not going to take it down. And the Wall Street Journal recently ran an article saying that Instagram has become pedophiles and predators app of choice because their algorithms, the very design of these apps actually help recommend accounts and posts with child exploitation material to these people. And so even the design of these products themselves, their algorithms are actively actually helping people to find this content on their site.

And so there is a strong connection between the two. And often we're seeing that children are now being really accidentally exposed to pornography through social media. And they're coming across this not because they're looking for it, but by accident.

And so it's a big problem, the connection between the two. So you mentioned that they're not only accidentally coming across it, but it's being actively promoted by these manufacturers of pornography. So I don't understand how that cannot be illegal.

Why the carrot and not more of the stick, to use your analogy? I think the challenge has been that Section 230 protects platforms for the third party content that's hosted on them. And so unfortunately, two pornography websites are now often protected because it's not just content that they're producing, but it's user generated content that is uploaded to these sites. And we have said that there is no legal liability for these platforms for content that they're just hosting. And so it's been a big challenge in the law.

And so others like myself and are working on policy solutions to try to reform Section 230 or to empower state things that they can do in the meantime. There are certainly legal challenges, and we may delve into that later, but related to the First Amendment, treating pornography as protected speech. And now obscenity is not protected.

And in fact, the government has a compelling interest in protecting children from obscenity. But the challenge is trying to do that in a way that is not burdensome on adult speech. And so that has been the big legal hurdle of a lot of these things is proving different policy solutions would not be overly burdensome on adults. And so that has been one of the main challenges is that there are kind of unhelpful legal precedents in Section 230 and First Amendment challenges that make it. You would think it would be very easy to just outlaw this stuff or hold companies responsible for it. But it actually is more challenging because of the legal situation.

So is there hope? Do you have some ideas as to how some of these difficulties can be addressed? Starting at the state level, you know, in the last year or so, we've seen a lot of states really stepping up to do more to protect kids online. And so even North Carolina this last year passed an age verification for pornography websites law. Other states like Virginia, Texas, Utah, Mississippi and Arkansas have also passed these age verification for porn websites and Louisiana. And this is a huge step in trying to address this problem because it would basically put a requirement on these websites to make sure that they're not showing materials to minors under the age of 18.

So I think, again, it's going to likely have those laws be challenged in court. But I do feel like now is the time and the more states that pass these laws, the better chance we have of getting them heard at the kind of level of the Supreme Court to overturn some past precedents against age verification. There's a case from basically 2004 that basically the court found that while the government had a compelling interest in protecting children from the content on these adult sites, age verification at that time was too burdensome on adults and it was not the most least restrictive means.

And I think now that the technology has changed so much, that's no longer true. And so it is a good opportunity for states to pass these laws and then hopefully get that precedent overturned. And saying that age verification doesn't need to be burdensome on adults can be done quickly and protective of user privacy. And importantly, then shield children from that type of content. Another kind of corresponding solution is also something other states have passed, which is age verification and parental consent for social media. Again, we're seeing social media being an entry point to a lot of this type of content. And parents are often feeling like they're powerless over keeping their child off social media or overseeing that because parents haven't had to be involved. In fact, children could easily go behind parents backs and make up a false birthdate because the only thing you have to do to create a social media account is enter a birthdate that says you're over the age of 13. And so these laws, again, would actually require social media platforms to conduct age verification. And if a user is under the age of 18, they would have to obtain parental consent from that minor in order to get on social media. And so this would be really helping to empower parents, you know, rightfully with the authority that they have to protect their children. And so I think those are two things that I'm very encouraged by that we've seen in the last year at the state level. And I think more and more states will hopefully take up those solutions and that can make a real difference in protecting kids. Just to clarify, the age verification that you mentioned originally when you're talking about the pornography websites, that's not just writing down a birthday, right? There's a little more to it than that?

Yes, that's right. I think what's helpful in these laws is they've outlined what reasonable age verification methods would be used. And often it is going to involve some type of government ID or something that actually verifies that this is the person's age. So it cannot just simply be a person attesting to be a certain age. There actually has to be a verification process, either obtaining financial data like credit cards or bank account information or government ID. And again, I think also these laws are very protective of user privacy because they make very clear that the site cannot retain that personal information, but it needs to be deleted once the age is verified. And there are penalties, you know, if they're found to retain it.

So they're crafted very well. You know, I'm talking right now about North Carolina has that provision. They're crafted very well to protect both user privacy while also actually being an effective age guard to make sure children aren't able to bypass that process. But there are some steps that have to be provided to ensure that this person is actually an adult. What stops a older child, 16, 17, from going to get their parents license and just putting that information in there?

That's a great question. I think there's probably always loopholes in these and that there's not going to be a perfect solution where some savvy child couldn't go the extra mile to get around it. But I think the more we can raise the barriers to them accessing that content and make it harder, the more we're going to be able to protect children just in the sense that they're actually going to have to provide some type of ID or verification. And again, I guess they could go steal their parents ID, but if parents are aware and engaged and they're trying to actually supervise their children, wouldn't be as easy for them to just access that.

So, of course, there are ways that children can always try to find ways to get around these things. But what I've said is that it really puts a responsibility on the site to be actually trying to keep children off of the platform. And if they are found to have failed at that and a minor is accessing that site or material, the laws also empower parents to be able to then actually bring lawsuits against these companies to hold them accountable.

And that's been lacking. Parents have had no kind of recourse to hold companies accountable. And so this would really actually open these websites up to accountability. And so while, yes, there's probably no perfect tool proof solution, this would make a real difference in actually raising the barrier for kids to be able to access this type of stuff. OK, so you mentioned North Carolina has the age verification law. Do we also have a parental consent or is that something that you think we need? Not yet, but I would love to work with any North Carolina state legislators that are interested in just to kind of give you more information. We recently, to try to help state legislators in this effort, put out a model bill. I think it's helpful sometimes for legislators to see a model. And so we put out kind of model legislative text if states are interested in adopting a parental consent for social media law. We've outlined that language that's available on our website, along with an accompanying summary document that gives the main summary of why this bill is needed and what it does and challenges to be aware of to overcome and how you craft the bill. So we tried to anticipate all the questions and answer those in the accompanying document. And both of those are available at EPPC.org on our Technology and Human Flourishing Project page.

And so you can find those PDFs if you're interested. But I would encourage North Carolina to keep the good work going after this age verification for porn sites law. I think the next strong step would be trying to introduce parental consent for social media. What's after that?

If we were to have both of those, is there something beyond that that you think could help? I have put out again on that same project page other ideas for ways to combat obscenity in terms of children accessing that online, trying to hold companies accountable for transmitting obscenity into the state. So most states have obscenity laws on the books. Children can't go into a brick and mortar store in the state and purchase obscenity. So trying to actually translate and expand or amend those existing state laws to include holding the people transmitting it into the state accountable under those laws is another solution. So there's certainly further measures that could be taken to try to hold people accountable for that transmission kind of law to hold people accountable for sending such harmful material to minors in your state. Again, in a proposal called War Proposals for States to Combat Obscenity Online that's also on that project page. So yes, I think there's always more things we can do to be taking the fight further down the road.

All right, sounds good. Claire Morrell, Senior Policy Analyst at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Thanks so much for being with us today on Family Policy Matters.

You've been listening to Family Policy Matters. We hope you enjoyed the program and plan to tune in again next week. To listen to this show online and to learn more about NC Family's work to inform, encourage and inspire families across North Carolina, go to our website at ncfamily.org. That's ncfamily.org. Thanks again for listening and may God bless you and your family.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-11-13 14:34:25 / 2023-11-13 14:40:29 / 6

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