Opinion: Tech companies: do no more harm

We need to take legislative action to help protect our children from the negative impacts of social media, the internet and technology.

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Image by Sarah Mai

by Nathan T. Chomilo

Sixty-four dollars and eighty cents may seem like a small amount of money, but for my family, it’s become a cautionary tale we can’t help but laugh about. I never thought leaving my 4-year-old unattended for just a few minutes with my Playstation 5 running could lead to them inadvertently purchasing a year-long Playstation Plus subscription. As a pediatrician who has given talks on screen time for young children, a board member of the Minnesota Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and an adjunct assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota Medical School, I should have known better. But being a father has taught me that ensuring our children thrive goes beyond just regulating screen time – we need to be vigilant about what our children are exposed to on those screens.

In today’s digital age, the unregulated online world poses one of the most significant threats to our children’s well-being. I have grown deeply concerned about social media’s impact on our children’s mental health. The statistics are staggering – Instagram’s own research found a third of teen girls reported the platform made them feel worse about their bodies. With filters that significantly alter one’s appearance to create unachievable beauty standards and TikTok’s algorithms recommending eating disorder and self-harm content to 13-year-olds within 30 minutes of joining the platform – it should not be a surprise.

And it’s not only body image, young people – particularly children and teens of color – are often the targets of bullying, harassment and discrimination online. Racist hate groups are targeting boys and young men through these same platforms, leading to radicalization with catastrophic impacts. The data that companies collect on our kids – their race, gender identity, location, religious preferences, their seemingly private search history – are all put up to the highest data broker bidder and shoved into algorithms that discriminate and put kids in harm’s way.

Many are now starting to see children facing a mental health crisis: 23.1% of Minnesota ninth graders reported a long-term mental health, behavioral or emotional problem in 2019 – a concerning increase compared to 12.5% facing the same problem in 2013. Anxiety and depression in Minnesotans ages 3-17 increased 14.8% between 2016 and 2020. It’s well past time for us adults to do more to protect our children online.

The introduction of Minnesota’s Age Appropriate Design Code Act, HF 2257, is an important step as we seek to help young people safely navigate the online world. This first-of-its-kind legislation aims to protect children’s privacy and online safety by requiring platforms to design their products according to the developmentally appropriate needs of kids at every age, from infancy to teenagehood. This means restricting the data collection and profiling of child users to feed them content that is harmful, turning off geolocation for children, prohibiting strangers from messaging kids if they are not mutual followers and being transparent in showing young users how they can control what shows up in their feeds.

Whether we are prepared to admit it, protecting our children’s physical and mental health now includes having guardrails in place for their online experiences. The internet has become an integral part of our daily lives, and as such, we must do all we can to ensure children are protected while using it. This includes our legislators taking steps to prioritize our children’s mental health and ensure their protection in the digital space.

As I’ve learned firsthand, even well-informed and intentioned parents won’t always be on top of where the threats are. We owe it to the next generation to create a world where they can flourish without the threat of preventable harm or exploitation. Supporting Minnesota’s Age Appropriate Design Code Act is not only a moral imperative but a crucial step toward safeguarding the well-being of our children. It may not cost me $64.80, but the stakes are much higher than a subscription fee. Our children’s mental health and development are on the line, and we must act now to ensure they can thrive in a digital age that is designed with their best interests in mind.

HF 2257 had its first reading on Monday.

Dr. Nathan T. Chomilo practices as a general pediatrician in Brooklyn Center with Park Nicollet. He is a board member of the Minnesota Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, an executive committee member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Minority Health, Equity and Inclusion and an adjunct assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota Medical School. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and son.