Parents of more than 100 trans and gender-expansive children are urging lawmakers to turn their back on the “dangerous and misguided” Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA) currently winding its way through Congress. In a fiery open letter shared with Gizmodo, the parents said KOSA, which is intended to shield kids from the harms of social media, would actually make their kids less safe and cut them off from potentially lifesaving resources and communities.
“Big Tech is hurting our kids,” they added. “KOSA would hurt them even more.”
Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle and President Biden himself have rallied around KOSA in recent months as a potential saving grace in response to a steady stream of reports showing various ways Big Tech platforms can harm young users and contribute to a worrying rise in depression and anxiety. The bill’s lead authors, Sens. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, and Marsha Blackburn, a Republican from Tennessee, say KOSA would hold tech companies accountable by creating a “duty of care” that would require platforms like Instagram and TikTok to protect young users against legally protected speech.
“Please remember that all kids deserve the protection of the state,” Mary, a Nebraska mother and one of the letter’s signatories said in a comment. “Laws that increase self-loathing and suicide are wrong.”
Under KOSA, social networks would be legally obligated to take an active role in ensuring young users aren’t exposed to content involving suicide, eating disorders, substance abuse, or other dangerous topics. It would also require sites and apps to provide minors with ways to turn off “addictive” features, opt-out of recommendation algorithms, and require the strongest level of privacy protection by default.
“We agree there is tremendous urgency around holding social media giants accountable and cracking down on their abusive business practices,” the parents wrote. “That’s why we are imploring you to abandon KOSA, which is deeply flawed and faces overwhelming opposition from human rights, LGBTQ, racial justice, and civil liberties organizations.”
That all may sound pretty appealing, but the parents of the trans children say KOSA’s broad language and lack of specificity could wind up harming their kids at others’ expense. The parents fear KOSA would grant conservative attorneys general in particular “extraordinary new power” to determine the kinds of content kids can and can’t see on the internet. That could be a good thing when limiting exposure to eating disorders, but KOSA critics worry lawmakers could use that same power to shut off access to trans communities or other resources online under the guise of protection. Trans rights groups have argued that those blocked sites could be the very things kids struggling with their identities need to make it through their days.
“These are the same attorneys general that are actively working to ban gender-affirming health care that saves kids’ lives, criminalize drag performances, and label families that accept our children as ‘groomers’ and ‘child abusers,’” the parents wrote.
KOSA supporters insist the legislation isn’t intended to target LGBTQ communities, despite contradictory rhetoric from some of its top advocates on Capitol Hill. Blackburn, one of the bill’s lead authors, conducted an interview with the Christian organization Family Policy Alliance where she listed “protecting children from transgender in this culture” as a top issue for conservative lawmakers. Blackburn’s legislative director responded to criticism of the senator’s statement by trying to assure the public that KOSA and supposedly protecting children from trans culture are “two separate issues.”
The parents’ letter similarly echoes concerns from privacy and civil liberties groups who fear KOSA’s duty of care would compel platforms to engage in intrusive data collection and age verification practices in order to determine whether or not a user is a minor. That increased level of data forfeiture wouldn’t only affect trans kids either, they say. States all across the US are pursuing age verification laws that would require adults to submit driver’s licenses or other government documents to access content deemed harmful.
“We need to hold these companies accountable and regulate them, not cut our kids off from resources that can help them thrive,” the parents wrote. “Please listen to us. Our kids’ lives are at stake.”