This week, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a long-overdue message warning Americans what they already know: Social media is harming kids. But looking through the 19-page advisory, the surgeon general’s solutions appear potentially more dangerous than these pariah platforms themselves. He is pushing for a critically misguided policy that many state legislatures and regulators have already enacted, a mistake that threatens to undo what little internet privacy we have left. To protect kids from social media, he argues, platforms and lawmakers must enforce age minimums. This is tantamount to requiring ID to go online.
Thirty years ago this July, an iconic New Yorker cartoon quipped that “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” It was a wry commentary on the then novel anonymity that seemed to define digital spaces. Online, you could create a construct, someone who navigated the internet as you wanted to be seen, not as you truly were. Of course, modern social media often provides a fraction of the invisibility that users once found on early text-based bulletin board services, but there are countless online communities where anonymity not only persists but is indispensable.
Anonymity is what has allowed so many of us, including teens, to build connections and find community, especially when living in places where in-person support is hard to find. It’s a lifeline for LQBTQ kids facing homophobia, who fear homelessness or violence if their parents learn who they are. It can create a safe way for undocumented individuals and those formerly incarcerated to have a social life even as they fear retribution from law enforcement. And digital platforms are increasingly the only ways for pregnant people in antiabortion states to figure out how to get the care they need, whether through the mail or by traveling across state lines. For more and more Americans, secure, anonymous internet platforms are the only way to hide from those who would persecute or even arrest them simply for being who they are.
Of course, the surgeon general and state lawmakers aren’t intentionally trying to sabotage these aspects of online life, but this is the inevitable consequence of how they’re approaching the threat of social media. The surgeon general’s advisory calls on platforms to strengthen and enforce age minimums, and on policymakers to develop specialized requirements for teens on social media, including everything from limits on harmful content to stronger age-enforcement technologies. But the surgeon general never says what magical technology could possibly prove a user’s age without destroying all of our privacy.
Looking at the states that already require proof of age to access a given website or make an online account, the situation is grim. One of the easiest ways to verify age is to require users to submit a government ID in order to access a particular service. This should be concerning to everyone who claims that they want to protect younger users. Requiring government ID to access The New York Times or to create a Wikipedia account, for example, will prevent millions of Americans without IDs from reaping the benefits of these sites. And even worse, those who do have IDs will have their legal names linked to everything they do online. And this isn’t just for teens. The only way to identify teen users is to card every user of any age every time they log in. This paper trail will make it easier than ever before for police and other law enforcement agencies to search our online histories.
Alternatively, some states may allow sites to have users input their credit card information to verify their age. But that will be easy to circumvent (as every kid who has used a parent’s card knows). Worse, it will exclude unbanked adults from online services. In an even creepier development, some platforms have proposed using AI to guess a user’s age based on a photo of their face or an assessment of their browsing history. But these error-prone strategies are likely to get websites sued when they inevitably guess users’ ages wrong.
It’s simple: The surgeon general and lawmakers can focus their work on protecting the privacy and mental health of all users, including kids, or they can continue to push misguided laws that put kids at risk. But no matter which path they pick, the truth is that magic technology to confirm everyone’s age will remain a fantasy, and the price of curtailing digital anonymity is an all-too-potent threat.
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