Experts Advocate Federal Agency to Oversee Children Online Safety

Experts are concerned a patchwork of state laws would fail to address the problem of kids online safety.

Experts Advocate Federal Agency to Oversee Children Online Safety
Photo of social media apps by Defense Visual Information Distribution Service

WASHINGTON, June 15, 2023 – Kids safety experts urged the government Tuesday to establish a federal agency dedicated to targeting online sexual predators in a Tuesday webinar hosted by the Cato Institute.

The federal agency would be more “effective” than the disjointed, state-by-state legislative approach in addressing the problem of children’s internet safety, according to experts.

Growing concerns about social media’s harms have prompted lawmakers to propose several pieces of legislation to protect children safety and privacy on the internet. Most of these proposals, however, have stalled in Congress, leaving no clear path forward for the federal government to address the issue.

Several states have thus taken matters into their own hands. Montana’s TikTok ban will become effective on Jan 1, 2024. A number of states like Utah, Arkansas, California, and most recently Louisiana, have passed laws imposing age limits or requiring parental consents to open kids accounts on certain platforms.

However, these state bills have come under fire for having wildly varying criteria. Experts also worry they risk infringing on children’s free speech and privacy rights as companies have to collect more data from users to comply with such laws.

“The minute we get a legislation in one state or a judge in another state to weigh in with ideas that really don’t make sense and aren’t enforceable, it’s just going to create more chaos,” said child welfare expert Maureen Flatley during the webinar.

Flatley argued that these measures are mostly “performative” and will not be helpful since they do not address the underlining criminal activity. She said she believed the problems with child safety do not lie with social media companies, but rather online predators who take advantage of those platforms to prey on children. To this end, she advocated for a government agency specifically tasked with investigating and prosecuting internet sexual abusers of children.

Andrew Zack, policy manager at Family Online Safety Institute, also echoed the same opinion, calling for a “chief online safety officer” to deal with child online sexual abuse materials.

“I think that’s where we should be focusing our efforts first and most vociferously and energetically when it comes to safety online for teens and kids,” said Zack.

Earlier in May, the Joe Biden administration announced an interagency task force on kids online health and safety led by the Department of Health and Human Services. It will examine internet threats to minors, recommend methods to address harms, and publish standards for transparency reports and audits by spring 2024.

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