This week, surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a long-awaited message warning Americans of what they already know: Social media is harming children. but looking 19 page advisory, the surgeon general’s solutions appear potentially more dangerous than these pariah platforms. He’s Pushing a Seriously Misguided Policy state legislature And regulators have already enacted, a blunder that threatens to undo what little internet privacy we have left. To protect children from social media, they argue, platforms and lawmakers should enforce minimum ages. This is similar to requiring ID to go online.
thirty years ago this July, an iconic new yorker cartoon pinched “On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog.” It was a satirical comment on the then-novel anonymity that seemed to define the digital space. Online, you can create a construct, someone who navigates the Internet as you wanted to appear, not as you really were. Of course, modern social media often offer a fraction of the invisibility that users once had on early text-based bulletin board services, but there are countless online communities where anonymity is not only persistent but inevitable.
Anonymity is what has allowed many of us, including teenagers, to build relationships and find community, especially when living in places where in-person support is difficult to find. It’s a lifeline for LQBTQ kids facing homophobia, who fear homelessness or violence if their parents find out who they are. This could create a safe way for undocumented individuals and formerly incarcerated people to have a social life, even if they fear retaliation from law enforcement. And digital platforms are increasingly the only way for pregnant people in pro-abortion states to find out what kind of care they need, whether through the mail or traveling across state lines. For more and more Americans, secure, anonymous Internet platforms are the only way to hide who they are from people who would persecute or even arrest them.
Of course, the surgeon general and state lawmakers aren’t intentionally trying to sabotage these aspects of online life, but it’s an inevitable consequence of how they’re approaching the threat of social media. The surgeon general’s advisory calls for strengthening and enforcing age minimums on platforms, and for policy makers to develop special requirements for teens on social media, ranging from limits on harmful content to stronger age-enforcement techniques Everything is included. But the surgeon general never says what magical technology can prove a user’s age without destroying all of our privacy.
The situation is grim, considering states that already require proof of age to access a website or create an online account. One of the easiest ways to verify age is users need it Submit a government ID To access a particular service. This should concern everyone who claims they want to protect young users. Requires government ID to access new York Times Or to create a Wikipedia account, for example, would prevent millions of Americans without IDs from taking advantage of these sites. And worse, those who have IDs will have their legal names attached to everything they do online. And it’s not just for teenagers. The only way to identify juvenile users is to give each user of any age a card each time they log in. This paper trail will make it easier than ever for police and other law enforcement agencies to search our online history.
Alternatively, some states may allow sites to require users to enter their credit card information to verify their age. But that would be easy to avoid (as every kid who’s used a parent’s card knows). Worse, it would leave unbanked adults out of online services. In an even more terrifying development, some platforms have proposal to use AI To estimate a user’s age based on a picture of their face or an assessment of their browsing history. But these error-prone strategies have the potential to get websites sued when they essentially mis-guess users’ ages.
It’s simple: The Surgeon General and lawmakers can focus their work on protecting the privacy and mental health of all users, including children, or they can continue to push misguided laws that put children at risk. But no matter which path they choose, the truth is that magical technology to verify everyone’s age will remain a fantasy, and the cost of diminishing digital anonymity is a very potent threat.
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