Platforms Recommend Harmful Content To LGBTQ Teens, Advocacy Group Says

A new report issued by advocacy group and big technology critic Fairplay says social media platforms' recommendation systems can create particular risks for teens who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex or asexual.

Nearly one in four (24%) of teenage social-media users who consider themselves LGBTQIA+ say that “dieting or pro-eating disorder” content is recommended to them on social media either every time they use a platform or several times a day -- compared to 18% of other teens, according to the report.

Fairplay (formerly Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood) also found that 18% of LGBTQIA+ teens said drug-related content was recommended to them either every time they use social media or several times a day, compared to 12% of other teens.

Nearly half of LGBTQIA+ teens (43%) said they were given recommendations to either “friend” or “follow” a stranger every time they use social media, or several times a day, compared to 35% of other teens.

“Teens overall are experiencing a number of harms online -- but LGBTQIA+ youth often experience some of the worst of it,” the report states. “Algorithmic recommendations systems put LGBTQIA+ youth in even more danger by feeding them harmful content including those that promote eating disorders and drug use.”

The report was based on a March 2023 poll, conducted with YouGov, of 912 U.S. teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17.

Of that group, 14% answered yes when asked whether they identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transexual, queer, intersex or asexual, while 80% answered no and 6% declined to answer.

Fairplay says the survey's findings lend support to two proposed laws -- the Kids Online Safety Act (S.1409) and the Children and Teens’ Online Privacy Protection Act (S.1418).

The Children and Teens’ Online Privacy Protection Act, reintroduced last month, would prohibit websites and apps from collecting a broad range of data -- including device identifiers, biometric information and geolocation -- from users between the ages of 13 and 15 without their express consent.

The Kids Online Safety Act, an especially controversial bill that also was reintroduced last month, would require platforms to take “reasonable measures” to prevent and mitigate potential harms associated with social-media use -- including eating disorders -- when displaying material to people that the platforms know or should know are 16 or younger.

The proposed law also would require platforms to use the most privacy-protective default settings for teens.

Other provisions would require platforms that allow ads to minors to label all ads, say why minors are being targeted for particular ads, and disclose all commercial endorsements.

The bill would empower state attorneys general to sue over violations.

Other advocacy groups oppose the Kids Online Safety Act, arguing that it could violate teens' First Amendment rights to receive information as well as platforms' First Amendment rights to make editorial decisions.

In general, content can be harmful but still legal and entitled to First Amendment protection -- such as material associated with eating disorders.

Opponents also argue that the bill could allow right-wing attorneys general to target platforms that allow teens to access LGBTQ content, on the theory that such material is harmful.

"You don't need an Internet poll to know that empowering Republican state attorneys general to sue online platforms over the content they host is going to result in less LGBTQ information online, not more,” Adam Kovacevich, CEO of the tech-industry funded policy group Chamber of Progress, said in response to the Fairplay report.

Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) made a similar point last month, at a press conference convened by advocacy group Fight for the Future.

“Giving extremist governors the power to decide what content is safe for kids is a non-starter,” Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) said last month at a press conference convened by advocacy group Fight for the Future. “I urge my colleagues to focus on elements that are actually going to protect kids rather than just handing more power to MAGA Republicans to wage a culture war against children.” 

Rachel Franz, report co-author and education manager at Fairplay, said the organization believes that the Kids Online Safety Act won't give state attorneys general a legal basis to suppress pro-LGBTQ+ content, or to limit access to medical information.

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