FTC Urged To Regulate How Platforms Display Content To Minors

Watchdogs are petitioning the Federal Trade Commission to prohibit platforms from designing their services in ways that could encourage children and teens to spend more time online.

In a petition filed with the FTC on Thursday, Fairplay, the Center for Digital Democracy and 19 other organizations argue that online platforms currently deploy “sophisticated design features that maximize their users’ time and activities.”

These features “often transform minors’ online experience into a harmful one, the groups write. Other organizations joining the petition include Accountable Tech, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, and Public Citizen.

They are asking the FTC to prohibit online services used by minors under 18 from deploying several specific design techniques. Among others, the organizations want to prohibit companies from designing their sites to play videos automatically -- meaning without input by users -- and from showing minors how many “likes,” “followers,” or “dislikes” their content garnered.

“Design features that maximize time and activity online harm minors emotionally, developmentally, and physically,” the organizations write.

They add that these features harm self-esteem, and appear to “aggravate risks of disordered eating and suicidality,” while also encouraging users to disclose “massive amounts of privacy-invasive user data.”

The petition comes as officials are increasingly scrutinizing social media platforms over potentially harmful content.

Earlier this year, the Senate Commerce Committee advanced the Kids Online Safety Act (S. 3663), which would require web companies to act in the best interest of users under the age of 16. That measure would require online companies to take reasonable steps to "prevent and mitigate physical, mental, financial, developmental, or other material harms to minors" -- including mental health disorders, self-harm, suicide, eating disorders and substance use disorders.

Social media companies including Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat are also facing lawsuits for allegedly designing their services to be addictive, and serving potentially harmful content to teens and children.

The claims largely draw on former Facebook executive Frances Haugen's accusations that the company designing its services in ways that can harm users -- such as by promoting material associated with eating disorders to teen girls.

A National Eating Disorders Association spokesperson reportedly said last year that social media doesn't cause eating disorders, but can contribute to them.

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