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LGBTQ, health groups see divide on digital protection bill

Guardrails on social media content draws concerns from LGBTQ groups about unintended consequences

A bill introduced by Sens.   Marsha Blackburn, above, and Richard Blumenthal would require social media companies to put guard rails on content encouraging substance use, self-harm or eating disorders.
A bill introduced by Sens. Marsha Blackburn, above, and Richard Blumenthal would require social media companies to put guard rails on content encouraging substance use, self-harm or eating disorders. (Tom WIlliams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Lobbyists are at odds over the possible inclusion of a bipartisan children’s digital protection bill in a year-end spending bill, sparking confusion between groups that often align on policy aims.

At issue is a technology bill that some Democrats hope to include in the next spending bill. The bill, a rare joint effort from Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., would require social media companies to place guardrails against content encouraging substance use, self-harm or eating disorders. 

It would also allow minors to opt out of some addictive features of social media, including certain algorithms, and would give parents more control over exposure to harmful content.

On its face, the bill suggests themes supported by most children’s advocacy and health care groups: protecting kids and reducing the risk of exacerbating mental health concerns at a time when those worries have skyrocketed. 

But behind the scenes, the legislation has stirred up mixed opinions on whom the legislation could help or harm.

Updating national data privacy protection for children is a bipartisan priority, but to date, it has been a herculean task to get across the finish line. The last digital privacy law was included in the fiscal 1999 omnibus.

The youth mental health epidemic has added a sense of urgency for some advocates.

Warren Y.K. Ng, president of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, speaking at an Oct. 13 briefing on youth mental health, said social media, an unregulated space, could use more protections. 

“We can definitely see that there can be a benefit,” he said. “However, we also have to appreciate that there is manipulative design in social media that incentivizes continued and increased use but also promotion of more extreme material over time. … How do we build in some safeguards, understanding that it is a vehicle for learning, it could be a vehicle for connection, it could be a vehicle for self-harm?” 

The American Academy of Pediatrics, American Psychological Association and Eating Disorders Coalition are among the organizations pushing for the bill’s passage this year.

The EDC, which represents about 40 groups, says the bill would help prevent minors from being subject to dangerous algorithms broadcasting destructive tips or videos promoting eating disorders, which are among the deadliest behavioral health disorders.

Still, potentially including the bill in a spending package has sparked criticism from some LGBTQ advocacy groups who argue that it would have ramifications for queer youth and reproductive health.

A coalition of more than 90 members, including Fight for the Future, GLAAD, Advocates for Youth and the American Civil Liberties Union, sent an open letter on Nov. 28 to Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee leaders and Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., saying the bill is too vague. They wrote that social media companies could use it to censor access to education resources, and it could result in more surveillance for age verification and unintentionally out LGBTQ youth who may not have a supportive home environment.

The coalition also worries that it could affect access to reproductive health information and that technology companies may adopt broad, uniform policies nationwide because of varied and changing abortion laws.

If a company is worried about legal action after it displays information about accessing an abortion to a minor in Texas, where the procedure is mostly banned, the coalition members say, then the company may err on the side of caution and limit these types of posts to minors from other states.

They worry that it could also limit discussion like a Facebook group with minors where someone is discussing traveling out of state for an abortion.

Conflicting issues

Complicating matters further is the fact that LGBTQ individuals have a higher incidence of eating disorders and are at higher risk of suicide compared with the general population.

Nine percent of LGBTQ youth are diagnosed with eating disorders, but an additional 29 percent think they may have one, according to The Trevor Project, a nonprofit focused on suicide prevention among LGBTQ youth.

The group’s February report also found that LGBTQ youth diagnosed with an eating disorder were four times more likely to be at risk for suicide in the past year compared with LGBTQ youth without a diagnosis. 

LQBTQ youth who suspected they had an eating disorder but did not have a diagnosis were twice as high a suicide risk as those who did not suspect they had an eating disorder.

While proponents and opponents of the bill agree that the federal government should address youth mental health issues like these in connection to social media, they differ on what kind of approach it should take. 

Lobbying efforts

The split among health advocates on this bill is unusual: Typically, both types of groups emphasize the need for mental health resources and the specific needs of LGBTQ youth.

“I think what you can see in just terms of the letters of support and opposition, that the LGBTQ community was not consulted, the human rights community was not consulted, the free expression community was not consulted,” said Evan Greer, director of Fight for the Future. “And that’s why they’ve ended up with a bill that, you know, tries to address real problems but goes about it in a way that actually could make those problems worse.”

The EDC, however, says it has been working with LGBTQ stakeholders. The Congressional LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus  developed a joint fact sheet in coordination with the EDC on how eating disorders affect LGBTQ youth. The fact sheet was released in September.

Schuyler Bailar, the first transgender athlete to compete in an NCAA Division I men’s sports team, who now serves on the EDC’s board of directors, said it is unfair to say the bill would harm LGBTQ youth.

“I hear that concern. And I think that there’s always space to be concerned about the reach of a specific bill. And at the same time, I think that [the bill] will result in things that will protect LGBTQ youth in many ways,” he said. “I know that many people who have been pushing for this bill … are very adamant and excited to protect queer kids, not ‘out’ them.”

Bailar, who struggled with an eating disorder years ago, said he has seen how harmful content can impact kids through his work as an online educator and self-described social media influencer.

“There’s a host of factors that increase the risk for eating disorders, including body image idealization, social isolation, perfectionism and bullying,” he said. “Trans and queer kids are already at higher risk for all those things.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics also pushed back on the coalition letter, saying it does not agree that the bill would jeopardize the safety of LGBTQ youth. 

“We would never endorse a bill that we thought would enable or encourage harm to this population of kids and teens,” said a spokesperson for the AAP. 

Last week, 12 moms whose children suffered or died in connection to social media content visited congressional leaders to advocate for the bill.

The moms spoke on Dec. 5 and 6 about losing their kids to cyberbullying-induced suicide, deadly TikTok challenges and fentanyl poisoning connected to Facebook and Snapchat.

The Blumenthal-Blackburn bill advanced unanimously during a July committee markup. But it has seen pushback in awaiting a House counterpart. A lobbyist familiar with discussions said Reps. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., and Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., have been lined up as lead sponsors.

The tight timeline for possible inclusion in the spending vehicle means the House version would not have the opportunity to go through regular order. But the same lobbyist said Blumenthal’s and Blackburn’s offices have been in communication with the House leads about any needed adjustments or tweaks to gain broader support.

Groups that back the bill have repeatedly met with House Energy and Commerce Committee leaders, who would have jurisdiction over the bill. They feel more confident about the support of Chairman Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., and have been working closely with Senate Commerce Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. Lobbyists say they are less confident about gaining the support of House Energy and Commerce ranking member Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash.

But the groups are still grappling with what House leadership will support.

Greer of Fight for the Future, which opposes the bill, said a number of congressional offices have thanked the coalition for the letter, but she did not provide the names of any lawmakers who have dropped support because of it.

“I think that this bill picked up a lot of steam because it sounds good on paper,” she said. “Now that lawmakers are getting a sense of what the real concerns are, I am feeling confident that it would be pretty egregious for them to just kind of steamroll over this level of concern from this number of organizations.”

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