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Monday, December 5, 2022

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Big Tech or Little Kids?



Laurie Schlegel’s son came home one day from his private Louisiana secondary school and told his mom that an eighth-grade peer tried to show him internet pornography during the school day.

The story is hardly remarkable considering its presumed frequency, but the response was noteworthy. Schlegel is a certified sex-addiction therapist and a newly elected legislator in the Louisiana House of Representatives. This past February, Schlegel introduced House Bill 142 to her colleagues. The representative told The American Conservative that the act would create a “civil cause of action against commercial entities that publish and distribute material for minors on the internet that don’t verify the age of their users first.” In other words, Louisiana parents would be able to sue entities that distribute sexually explicit material for damages if the entity failed to take legitimate steps to verify the age of its users.  

Detractors will say, “Imagine the scandal! The state cannot (or at least should not) get involved in something as private as pornography.” Not hardly: Schlegel’s age-verification legislation passed unanimously in both chambers of her state’s legislature, was signed into law by Governor John Bel Edwards in June, and will take effect in 2023.

This is the sort of thing that scholars at the Institute for Family Studies (IFS) and the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC) have been waiting for. Last month, those think tanks published a joint report titled “Protecting Teens from Big Tech: Five Policy Ideas for States.” The legislative brief draws a connection between social-media and pornography consumption among teens and concerning sociological trends, including increases in teen depression, self-harm, sleep deprivation, suicide attempts, and suicide.

The authors of the report evidence a simultaneous frustration with Congressional inaction and anticipation for creative state-level solutions. Both Clare Morell, a policy analyst at the EPPC and the primary author of the report, and Michael Toscano, executive director of the IFS, told TAC that the so-called “network effects” of social-media and pornography consumption among teens are cause for action on the level of public policy: Toscano said “there’s really no individuated technological experience,” and Morell said “each individual parent’s battle, whether it’s social-media use or screen time, is made a lot easier if parents are empowered in these ways.”

Toscano, who has been executive director of IFS since 2019, says that parents are asking for the help. He joined Brad Wilcox, senior fellow at IFS, at a 2019 event in Richmond, Virginia with around 100 mothers. At the event, the scholars talked about education, marital outcomes, the success sequence, and declining fertility: “They found all of that interesting, but the one thing that gripped them was the question of the effect of social media on their relationships with their own families.”

To respond to this increasingly common question, the joint report offers legal prescriptions that would govern age-verification, parental consent, parental access, time of social-media use for minors, and legal remedies for affected parents and children. The report concludes with a “bonus proposal” that shifts the Overton window for public-policy discussions: “enact a complete ban on social media for those under age 18.” The report calls this solution “bold” but “not unprecedented;” the report lists “driving, smoking, drinking, getting a tattoo, and enlisting in the military” as examples of activities from which minors are barred from participating. Morell said that “there’s a precedent and a category for when we recognize something [is] really harmful.”

Morell recognizes the responsibility of parents to protect their children from social-media and pornography addictions, but also points to social phenomena that demand a legal response:

Even if you do stay strong in this [home] environment, and keep your own kids off them, the whole social environment of their class or school is really affected by these kids using the social media apps… A collective solution is needed to say, “Yes, there are certain things that should be left to parents, but as a society, we recognize that when something is dangerous or harmful to children, we haven’t left that to individual parents who said we should bar kids from something because it’s harmful.”

The report acknowledges that these policy ideas are unique: the document says that a flat social-media ban would “present novel legal issues” and calls on “pioneering states to inaugurate a new era of regulatory reform.” But Toscano claims that these solutions match a unique era:

Imagine a scene where parents are sitting around the dinner table, and they’re having a lively discussion about what happened that day or even public events. Now, what you’re talking about for most families is something that is vanishingly rare, because what has interceded between them is our technological devices. Our family relationships are now being mediated by media, which is a new thing.

Social-media and pornography addictions do not come as a surprise to the companies that create them. As Toscano remarked, tech companies “employ some of the most competent and highly regarded behaviorists in the whole world to make [their products] addictive.” Perhaps there would not be justification for legislative action were the widespread addiction unintentional and the effects not felt on the social level. But neither hypothetical is the case: the addiction is expected and everybody’s suffering because of it.

Rep. Schlegel told TAC that she has “seen the toll it has taken on people.” Her day job as a licensed counselor for people with pornography and sex addiction informs her zeal for the issue. To build a coalition that would be receptive to her legislation, she hosted a webinar with anti-porn activist Gail Danes for members in both chambers of the legislature and provided opportunities for education for her colleagues on the nature of contemporary internet pornography and the effects of addiction. Schlegel said, “I always say, it’s not your dad’s Playboy.”

The bill that was signed into law is common sense and modest in scope. Commercial entities for which at least one-third of the material on their site is sexually explicit will now be required to verify the age of their visitors either by government ID or “any commercially reasonable method that relies on public or private transactional data to verify the age of the person.” In 2016, the state of Louisiana introduced LA Wallet, a phone app that is accepted by state police and businesses that are required to verify age. Compliant entities bound by this law will likely take advantage of this feature, which either confirms or denies the legal age of website visitors and does not reveal any other information about the individual.

When Schlegel was arguing for the bill in the legislature, she said, “Unlimited access to pornography on the internet is causing a public-health crisis for our children.” Morell used the same language, and Toscano said that excessive use of social media among teens is causing a “serious mental-health crisis.”

They realize that their serious concern is not shared by everyone, and Toscano expects a fight going forward. Tech companies will deploy their formidable legal, financial, and political resources. Libertarian periodicals will unironically publish articles defending the inalienable rights of ten-year-olds to watch hardcore porn. Legislators will have to pick a side, and Toscano says, “God willing, they will choose the sides of parents and kids.”





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