Social Media Data & Privacy Mental Health

Biden administration rolls out new initiatives to protect kids’ online safety & privacy


By Kendra Barnett, Associate Editor

May 23, 2023 | 9 min read

The White House has issued a handful of new orders that aim to address the health, safety and privacy of young internet users in the US. It's a development that could hamper advertisers' ability to target young audiences – but many within the digital space are signaling their support.

teen girl using phone while lying on her stomach

President Biden is issuing new orders intended to address kids' and teens' online safety and privacy / Adobe Stock

The Biden White House on Tuesday announced a slate of new executive actions designed to help advance protections for children and teens online. Among them are a new multi-agency task force and a plan to introduce new resources and guidelines for online publishers, school administrators and teachers.

The initiatives build on the US Surgeon-General’s recently published Advisory on Social Media and Youth Mental Health, which outlines evidence of the negative effects of social media on children’s and teens’ health and well-being.

The decision comes at a moment when kids’ online safety has been increasingly coming into focus on the national stage. Earlier this month, the Federal Trade Commission said it plans to ban Meta’s use of underage users’ data. TikTok’s CEO was grilled by lawmakers on young users’ safety and privacy at a Congressional hearing in March. And in his annual State of the Union address in February, President Biden urged Congress to pass legislation to “stop big tech from collecting personal data on kids and teenagers online, [and] ban targeted advertising to children.”

An interagency task force, new guidelines for schools and more

Most notably, the Biden administration's new executive actions include the formation of a joint initiative, dubbed the Task Force on Kids Online Health and Safety, between the Department of Commerce and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (part of the Department of Health and Human Services).

The task force will be responsible for investigating the health benefits and risks that online platforms pose to young people. With the help of experts hailing from a variety of fields, the group will then “recommend best practices and technical standards for transparency reports and audits related to online harms to the privacy, health and safety of children and teenagers.”

Additionally, the Department of Education will kick off a rulemaking process under the Family Educational Rights Privacy Act that aims to “enhance the privacy of minor students’ data and address concerns about the monetization of that data by commercial entities,” according to today’s announcement.

Plus, a cross-agency group – including The Department of Education, Department of Health and Human Services, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Federal Trade Commission and the Surgeon-General - will publish new resources, best practices and suggested policies on the use of devices and internet services in elementary and secondary schools in the US. The aim, per the Biden administration, is to “promote and encourage local policies that improve digital health, safety and citizenship practices and academic outcomes; and the acquisition of safe, healthy and developmentally-appropriate digital literacy skills and habits for P-12 students.”

Funding made available through the Digital Equity Act – a bipartisan bill that provides grant money for programs designed to promote digital equity and inclusion – will also go toward the Department of Commerce. The agency will use the funds to promote services and support to mitigate online harassment and abuse of children and teens online. It will also collaborate with digital rights leaders and broadband administrators to develop new tactics for stemming online harassment of kids and teens.

Finally, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice will team up with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to build out image repositories intended to “detect and investigate” instances involving child sexual abuse material, as well as to identify victims.

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How various stakeholders are reacting

Experts working in and around digital rights and children’s online safety and privacy largely applaud these new efforts.

“The executive actions ordered by President Biden today are a vital step toward creating the safer, less exploitative online experience that all children and teens deserve,” says Josh Golin, executive director at Fairplay, a nonprofit organization focused on children's digital safety. “Young people today aren't just facing digital risks on social media platforms. They see risks everywhere] from online gaming platforms to the tech they use every day in schools, [and] kids and teens are monetized by engagement-maximizing design with little care for their privacy, safety and wellbeing.”

The new orders, Golin says, “reflect the need to address the complex digital media environment young Americans navigate every day.”

The next step in advancing kids’ online safety and privacy, he suggests, is for Congress to pass new bills including the Kids Online Safety Act and a recent proposal that seeks to update the US’ federal Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (Coppa) of 1998.

Members of the digital community who service young audiences are also generally supportive.

”As a Coppa-compliant streaming publisher focused on kid-friendly advertising, it is important to acknowledge that tailored, data-driven targeting of children online raises serious concerns about privacy and ethics,” says Vikrant Mathur, the co-founder of HappyKids, a streaming service for children.

Mathur suggests that in the world of advertising, new, more privacy-safe approaches to targeting are needed to protect young audiences. ”To that end, it is reassuring to see the growing value placed on contextual targeting as a more responsible approach to advertising,” he says.

Contextual advertising places ads based on the content of a media environment – rather than relying on user device-level identifiers like third-party cookies. As such, it’s widely considered a more privacy-centric approach. ”Contextual targeting allows for delivering ad-friendly experiences while still prioritizing privacy and ensuring that campaigns align with the values and interests of the target audience,” Mathur says. ”By focusing on contextual targeting, advertisers can create campaigns that not only reach the right audience but also do so in a manner that is safe, respectful and privacy-sensitive.”

He, like Golin, is also bullish on the prospect that regulators will revamp COPPA this year, introducing new protections for underage users. Doing so, he says, can empower compliant publishers ”to stand out and be better-positioned to win ad dollars.”

Nate Fish, founder of Footprint, an app that allows parents to save and share memories and information for their children and give it to them later in life as a “digital rite of passage into adulthood,” per the company’s website, feels that Biden’s new actions are common-sense steps. “What used to be dismissed as paranoia about the effects of social media is now common sense,” he says. ”Kids deserve digital privacy and need protections from social media platforms. If we were kids today, I think we would want that.”

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