AUSTIN (Nexstar) — As part of a larger effort to crack down on ‘Big Tech,’ the Texas House gave initial passage to a bill Tuesday that would require websites to protect teenagers from “harmful” content and get parental consent before using minors’ data.
The “Securing Children Online through Parental Empowerment Act” (SCOPE) aims to give parents and guardians more tools for shielding their kids from “addictive algorithms” and prevent social media companies from collective private information about minors.
It comes amid growing concerns around high usage of social media by American teens and the consequences the volume of usage can have on their overall health. Earlier this year, the U.S. Surgeon General said he believes anyone younger than age 14 should not have social media accounts, citing growing research showing the harmful impacts it can have on children’s mental health and development.
A priority of Speaker Dade Phelan, the bill would prevent a “digital service provider” or DSP from entering an agreement with minors. Currently, most social media platforms require children to be 13 or older before joining, but loopholes make enforcement of this more difficult.
During opening remarks on the bill, author Rep. Shelby Slawson, (R-Stephenville), shared anecdotes of Texas teens who were exposed to harmful content on social media, saying they are “unquestionably suffering” under how social media sites currently operate for teens.
“Their young minds are being shaped by addictive algorithms,” she said. “Our children are not the customers of these platforms they are the commodities being traded.”
Her legislation would require social media companies and DSPs to get consent from a parent or guardian before allowing a Texas minor to create an account on their websites or apps. It will also require companies to provide access to whatever data they have collected and stored on the minors, if a parental figure requests that information.
“We very carefully crafted this so that it doesn’t prevent access. It doesn’t say a kid can’t utilize a platform,” Slawson told Nexstar. “It just puts those safety mechanisms in place so that hopefully we can keep them better protected when they’re on there.”
While the bill got unanimous approval, Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, questioned how this would be enforced, saying there is “no avenue specified” for parents who might want take legal action if companies violate this law. Slawson said if the bill becomes law, the enforcement authority will be with the Texas Attorney General. She said she believes that parents could take potential claims to that office.
In a March committee hearing on the bill, San Antonio parent MaryCarmen Srinivasan told lawmakers about the negative effects of social media she’s seen firsthand on her child.
“If your child is already dealing with mental health issues, the algorithm can listen to this and start advertising to you,” she said. “I searched for vaping once on Instagram, got a disclaimer but also gave me the choice to join groups or see also minors in these groups. The way the algorithm can listen to what you’re saying, or remember what you’re searching, and open up many different accesses of said searches is very concerning.”
Texas is the latest state to target how teens can use social media. Arkansas lawmakers voted to require children to get their parents’ permission to create new social media accounts, which Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed it into law earlier this month. In March, Utah’s governor signed a new law that has similar parental approval requirements. Additionally, congressional lawmakers are considering similar legislation at the federal level.
The House will have to give this bill a final passage during third reading on Wednesday before it heads to the Senate.