Comment to NTIA on Youth Mental Health, Safety, and Privacy Online

Nov 16, 2023 by BBB National Programs Privacy Initiatives Team

BBB National Programs appreciates efforts by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to gather input and feedback on best practices to protect minors’ mental health, safety, and privacy online and was pleased to have the opportunity to submit comments. 

Online platforms have become a central part of children’s social and emotional development. While this trend was evident before the COVID-19 pandemic, the measures taken to address the public health crisis restricted children’s access to in-person opportunities and hastened the adoption of digital spaces for information gathering, exploration, and play. 

The 2023 Familial and Adolescent Health Survey by Gallup and the Institute for Family Studies found that U.S. teenagers (aged 13 to 18) now spend an average of 4.8 hours on social media applications per day. More than half - 51% of teens surveyed - reported a minimum of four hours per day on social media applications.

This means that the average teen’s time spent on social media per day has likely more than quadrupled from the pre-pandemic average of 1.1 hour of daily use reported by Common Sense Media in 2019. While online platforms are an increasingly vital aspect of youth social life in the 21st century, these same platforms may pose critical risks of harm to minors’ privacy, safety, and wellbeing. 

Furthermore, a 2022 survey by Trusted Future found that youth online privacy is a top policy concern for parents. Such concerns have already animated state legislatures around the country to take action, adopting new youth-centric data privacy and online safety laws. Youth privacy and safety has also generated significant litigation, including alleged consumer protection law violations for potential safety and mental health-related harms stemming from the use of the platforms for minors, as well as violations of the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).

Given the concerns of parents and the findings of other research on the privacy, safety, and wellbeing of youth in digital spaces, it is essential to ensure that platforms are designed in a responsible and trustworthy manner that respects the needs of minor users and mitigates foreseeable harms that pose heightened risks to minors. The Biden Administration’s leadership in developing an interagency Task Force on Kids Online Health & Safety is a vital step toward this goal.

BBB National Programs welcomes the opportunity to provide perspective on this critical issue. Our response begins with a brief overview of our accountability programs, which provide important self-regulatory privacy guardrails for companies to follow amid a patchwork of state privacy laws addressing minors’ online privacy and safety protections. The bulk of our submission shares recommendations that provide a response to the questions in the NTIA RFC. 

Here is an overview of our recommendations:

  • Recognize and prioritize the role of third-party accountability programs, which can play a pivotal role in strengthening protections for children and teens in online environments; 
  • Adopt the BBB National Programs’ TeenAge Privacy Program (TAPP) Roadmap as a reference point and a uniform, risk-based approach to considering teen privacy protections that support industry third-party accountability;
  • Recognize the importance of existing COPPA safe harbor programs that uplift children’s advertising and privacy protections; and
  • Expand community-based digital citizenship opportunities, public-private partnerships, and campaigns to teens to ensure teens and their parents are aware of the shared responsibilities between companies and families.

 

Independent accountability mechanisms can play a vital role in ensuring that online services and platforms are designed for the needs and sensitivities of minors. These measures should aim to protect the rights and interests of all stakeholders, foster transparency, and promote continuous improvement and innovation.

2024 will inspire a host of new policy proposals and expectations from the White House, Congress, and other federal and state leaders. It is up to companies to step up and leverage new solutions and existing resources to set a robust standard for our next-generation youth, who are digital natives.

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