Tech

Why Apps Suddenly Want to Protect Kids

This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. Here is a collection of past columns.

When people younger than 18 record videos and add them to YouTube, the public can no longer watch them. TikTok says it will stop sending app notifications to teenagers at night. Facebook and Google have sharply restricted the ways that advertisers can tailor messages to minors on their sites.

In recent months, internet companies have reworked their apps and policies to try to better protect the safety, privacy and mental health of children. One big reason is Britain.

In September, new guidelines went into effect in the country that may be the world’s most sweeping digital protections aimed at kids. As in the examples above, the British regulations — formally called the Age-Appropriate Design Code or the Children’s Code — are also changing the internet experience for kids and families in the U.S. and other countries.

I’ll explain more about the British protections and why their effects have spread. Children’s advocates are mostly over the moon about it.

One main takeaway is that as U.S. lawmakers are debating updated laws to protect kids online and scolding the head of Instagram, as they did on Wednesday, the horse has partly left the barn. Britain is essentially dictating how U.S. internet companies should protect American children.

What’s in this British regulation:

The idea behind the Children’s Code is that companies must build products with the best interests of children in mind, and it makes companies accountable to protect them. The regulations don’t take all control and responsibility from parents and caregivers, but they are a backstop for families.

Among other guidelines, the code requires websites and apps to turn on the highest possible privacy settings by default for people under 18, and to turn off features that track children’s locations. Digital services must collect as little information as possible about kids.

Some of the guidelines are vague, partly by design, and that’s one reason the technology industry said it fought the British code. It was adopted last year after a messy process.

It’s too soon to assess how effective the guidelines will be and how they will be enforced. And there are trade-offs. As companies try more aggressive age verification methods, partly in keeping with the British standards and other regulations, it may compromise anonymity online.

But most advocates for children believe the guidelines are a thoughtful approach to remodeling the internet for potentially vulnerable young people. “We definitely are fans,” James P. Steyer, the chief executive of Common Sense Media, told me.

Why has this spread globally?

To comply with the British code, Facebook, Google and other companies could have changed features only for kids who live in that country. But practically and philosophically, that might have been a bad choice.

There is growing support among lawmakers and tech executives for different features and safeguards to protect children from sexual predators, inappropriate content, bullying and other risks from being online.

Internet companies know that more regulations like Britain’s are most likely coming, so it may be prudent to act of their own accord. “I think they can see the writing on the wall,” Sonia Livingstone, a professor at the London School of Economics who studies children’s digital rights, told Wired this year.

What is Washington doing?

Members of Congress are deliberating potential updates to the U.S. law for comprehensive online child protection, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. The 1990s law compelled most popular online services in the U.S. to bar users who are younger than 13. But we know that many American kids are online with or without their parents’ permission. The question now is what more could or should be done to help make them safer online.

In a video from The New York Times Opinion section, my colleagues made the case that Congress should copy the British regulations. Some U.S. lawmakers have essentially proposed that. “Why not here?” Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, asked at Wednesday’s hearing, referring to the British code.

The British regulations are effectively here already, but without the force of U.S. law. Steyer said he was frustrated that Congress hadn’t yet passed new child safety laws but believed they would be coming very soon. “2022 is going to be very important here for tech legislation and regulation,” he said.

Understand the Facebook Papers


Card 1 of 6

A tech giant in trouble. The leak of internal documents by a former Facebook employee has provided an intimate look at the operations of the secretive social media company and renewed calls for better regulations of the company’s wide reach into the lives of its users.

How it began. In September, The Wall Street Journal published The Facebook Files, a series of reports based on leaked documents. The series exposed evidence that Facebook, which on Oct. 28 assumed the corporate name of Meta, knew Instagram, one of its products was worsening body-image issues among teenagers.

The whistle-blower. During an interview with “60 Minutes” that aired Oct. 3, Frances Haugen, a Facebook product manager who left the company in May, revealed that she was responsible for the leak of those internal documents.

Ms. Haugen’s testimony in Congress. On Oct. 5, Ms. Haugen testified before a Senate subcommittee, saying that Facebook was willing to use hateful and harmful content on its site to keep users coming back. Facebook executives, including Mark Zuckerberg, called her accusations untrue.

The Facebook Papers. Ms. Haugen also filed a complaint with the Securities and Exchange Commission and provided the documents to Congress in redacted form. A congressional staff member then supplied the documents, known as the Facebook Papers, to several news organizations, including The New York Times.

New revelations. Documents from the Facebook Papers show the degree to which Facebook knew of extremist groups on its site trying to polarize American voters before the election. They also reveal that internal researchers had repeatedly determined how Facebook’s key features amplified toxic content on the platform.


Tip of the Week

Tech to plan your holiday travels

Are you planning air travel in the next few weeks? Brian X. Chen, the consumer technology columnist for The New York Times, has a handy suggestion for organizing your travel itinerary.

I recently suggested ways to carry proof of Covid vaccinations on your smartphone in case you need it when you roam away from home. Today I have a tip for another major pain of traveling: keeping track of your itinerary.

I turn to technology for taming the sprawl of information like airline flight numbers, hotel addresses, rental car information and more. In the coronavirus pandemic era, airline officials are asking for this information from international travelers to help with contact tracing. And it’s useful anyway to have all your travel info close at hand.

The free app TripIt is my favorite way to do that. After setting up an account, you can forward emails related to your trip, including flight confirmations, lodging and rental car information, to plans@tripit.com.

The app organizes all that information automatically into an all-in-one itinerary that looks like a timeline. It’s a neat and simple way to find your travel records quickly when you need them.

We want to hear from our readers about the ways that you’re using technology (apps, social media, websites, gadgets or more) to help you plan your travel, parties, shopping or family time this holiday season. Tell us about an app or site you use and what makes it helpful, or the tech you stopped using and why. We may publish a selection of the responses in an upcoming newsletter. Email ontech@nytimes.com.

Before we go …

  • Where desperate people log on: My colleagues Megan Twohey and Gabriel J.X. Dance investigate a website that has the hallmarks of popular social media, and draws in young people with explicit content on suicide that other sites don’t allow. (Warning: The article focuses on suicide and contains details about those who have taken their own lives.)

  • Tech that helps people in need: My colleague Jason DeParle wrote about app companies that are helping people navigate the maze of government social safety programs like food stamps and child tax credits. (Flashback: Here’s more on one of these companies, Propel, which I wrote about last year.)

  • Hooray for WIRES: AirPods are so yesterday. Lauren Dragan from The New York Times’s product recommendation site, Wirecutter, explains why headphones with wires are cool again and she suggests great-sounding and affordable options. Also, Teen Vogue featured the creator of the Instagram account Wired It Girls.

Hugs to this

My new personal hero is this kitty blissing out in front of a fire.


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