Restricting Access to Information Online Won’t Keep Teens Safe. It Will Only Erode Democratic Rights

Well-meaning legislative proposals to protect young people undermine a key factor in teens’ development: independence.

Constant monitoring may not necessarily keep young people safe. (Xavier Lorenzo / Getty Images)

Keeping young people safe online has long been an important goal of policy conversations, and that focus has only increased since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. More young people are online now than ever before, and screen time amongst youth has skyrocketed. They rely on online spaces as lifelines for community, identity, formation, education, and secure access to information about reproductive care and LGBTQ+ identity that parents and teachers may not make available or have the resources to discuss.

Yet, the absence of federal privacy protections leaves individuals, including children, vulnerable to sensitive data falling into the wrong hands. And the use of sensitive data to micro-target compelling and personalized advertisements all around the web irks young people and adults alike.

In response, young people have called for more tools to navigate the web safely. Some teens want more short-term or ephemeral content online, more control over their algorithmic feeds, and the ability to delete data collected or inferred about them. When one of the authors of this piece interviewed over 30 young people about their online safety last fall, many teens asked for better reporting, blocking and user filtering tools so they could minimize unwanted encounters online while still using the messaging services they depended on to stay in touch with friends, family, classmates and loved ones. The undercurrent of their ask: Help us help ourselves.

Child psychologists and other healthcare professionals, educators, and even parents agree that empowering teens to make decisions themselves is integral for their development. Yet, the conversation in Congress and in state legislatures across the country about what to do to protect children online sounds almost entirely divorced from the calls coming from teens and many of the adults in their lives.

In the last two years, a handful of federal bills and a significant share of state bills have sought to regulate online services in ways that undermine teen independence by:

  • subjecting teens to 24/7 parental supervision,
  • age-gating young people away from information that pertains to race, reproductive health, and LGBTQ+ issues, or
  • removing access to this information on the web entirely, even for adults.

In many cases, the legislative proposals are good-faith efforts to deal with difficult questions regarding how to improve children’s safety online, which nonetheless go too far in limiting children’s access to constitutionally protected expression. In others, these efforts are blatant attempts to silence critical debates about race, gender or other necessary topics under the guise of “child protection.”

Technology companies, fearing legal investigations or enforcement action, may preemptively remove access to lawful content pertaining to subjects such as LGBTQ+ history or abortions—as they have in the past.

Some well-meaning efforts, like the version of the Kids Online Safety Act that passed out of a Senate committee last July, attempt to tackle harmful outcomes but are written in a way that may supercharge censorship efforts. The bill equips state attorneys general with the ability to bring lawsuits against technology companies for failing to design their service to prevent access to content any single attorney general deems as falling within one of the broad categories of harm outlined in the bill.

As states across the country ban books under the guise of children’s protection and consider laws to limit minors’ and adults’ access to information related to menstruation, reproductive healthcare and Black history, there is a real risk that proposals like these, whether at the state or federal level, could be misused by politically motivated actors.

What’s worse is that technology companies, fearing legal investigations or enforcement action, may preemptively remove access to lawful content pertaining to subjects such as LGBTQ+ history or abortions—as they have in the past.

While bills like the Kids Online Safety Act have the potential for misuse in our current political climate, other recently enacted laws more directly invoke children’s safety to engage in blatant censorship. Consider Florida’s Stop WOKE Act, which restricts the sharing of any information related to race and gender in classrooms and workplaces under the pretense of protecting children’s mental health. The law was signed in April 2022 and blocked by a federal judge from going into effect in November 2022 after a lawsuit brought by the ACLU and Legal Defense Fund asserting that the law was a racially motivated act of censorship.

Regardless, the law has resulted in colleges and librarians in Florida refraining from making resources related to Black history and LGBTQ+ history available to students. Even workplace trainers who provide diversity, equity and inclusion training have been chilled from offering their services to businesses. Currently, the ACLU has challenged similar classroom censorship laws in Oklahoma and New Hampshire.

Providing teenagers with tools to protect themselves, along with options to get parental help when needed, can go much further in creating a safe environment online.

Paternalistic attempts at restricting access to information don’t help children. Experts say that youth access to a wide array of information is critically important for young people’ literacy rates, empathy, exposure to different ideas and cultures and even their health.

As lawmakers continue to ban books in schools and libraries and extracurricular programs remain underfunded, equipping young people—particularly teenagers—with the ability to access information over the internet freely is crucial as they prepare to study, work and vote.

Teens and their allies are asking for more control of their digital lives. These proposals instead would strip it away, substituting the judgment of teens and their parents with that of the government, undermining the free expression rights of teens and everyone else in the process. 

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About and

Aliya Bhatia is a policy analyst at the Center for Democracy & Technology.
Michal Luria is a research fellow at the Center for Democracy & Technology.