A coalition of leading health and privacy advocates filed a petition today urging the Federal Trade Commission to pass a rule banning online platforms from using unfair design features to trick children and teens into spending excessive amounts spending time online. Twenty-one groups, led by Fairplay and the Center for Digital Democracy, said in their petition, “When minors go online, they are bombarded with common design features that have been carefully crafted and refined to maximize the time users spend online and Activities in which users engage.” They asked the FTC to establish rules of the road to determine when these practices cross the line of unlawful unfairness.
The advocates’ petition describes how the vast majority of apps, games and services popular with minors generate revenue primarily through advertising, and many employ sophisticated techniques to create lucrative long-term relationships between minors and their brands. As a result, platforms use techniques like autoplay, endless scrolling, and strategically timed ads to keep kids and teens online as much as possible — which isn’t in their best interest.
The petition also details how manipulative design features on platforms like TikTok, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat are undermining the well-being of young people. Excessive online time crowds out sleep and physical activity and harms the physical and mental health, growth and academic achievement of minors. Features designed to maximize engagement also expose minors to potential predators and online bullies and age-appropriate content, harming minors’ self-esteem and increasing their risk of eating disorders and suicidality. The manipulative tactics also undermine the privacy of children and young people by encouraging the disclosure of large amounts of sensitive user data.
The advocates’ petition comes just months after California passed its Age Appropriate Design Code, a law requiring digital platforms to act in the best interests of children, and while Congress passed the Kids and Online Safety Act and the Children and Teens’ Online Gaining Momentum Privacy Act.
The petition was written by the Georgetown University Law Center’s Communications and Technology Law Clinic.
Haley Hinkle, Political Advisor, Fair Play:
“The manipulative tactics described in this petition, employed by social media platforms and apps popular with children and young people, are not only detrimental to young people’s development – they are unlawful. The FTC should exercise its powers to prohibit these unfair practices and send a message to Big Tech that manipulating minors into giving up their time and information is unacceptable.”
Katharina Kopp, Deputy Director, Center for Digital Democracy:
“The hyper-personalized, data-driven advertising business model has hijacked our children’s lives. The design characteristics of social media and games have been purposefully developed to keep young people online longer and to satisfy advertisers. It is time the FTC put an end to these unfair and harmful practices. They should have safeguards in place to ensure platforms and publishers design their online content in a way that puts the best interests of young people ahead of the interests of marketers.”
Jenny Radesky, MD, Associate Professor of Pediatrics, University of Michigan and Chair-Elect of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Communications and Media:
“As a pediatrician, helping parents and young people navigate the increasingly complex digital landscape in a healthy way has become a core aspect of my work. If the digital environment is designed to support children’s healthy relationship with media, then it will be much easier for families to create boundaries that support children’s sleep, friendships, and safe exploration. However, this petition highlights how many platforms and games are designed to actually do the opposite: encouraging longer time on devices, more social comparisons, and greater monetization of attention. Kids and teens tell us that this type of design actually makes their platform and app experiences worse, not better. Therefore, we ask federal agencies to put in place safeguards to protect against the manipulation of children’s behavior and instead prioritize their developmental needs.”
Professor Laura Moy, Director of the Communications & Technology Law Clinic at Georgetown Law and Advisor to the Center for Digital Democracy and Fairplay:
“As any parent or guardian can attest, gaming and social media apps are driving children and teens to spend increasing amounts of time online, in ways that neither minors nor their guardians could reasonably prevent. This is neither accidental nor harmless – it is engineered and deeply harmful. The FTC must step in and set boundaries to protect children and youth. The FTC should clarify that the most harmful and prevalent design features that manipulate users to maximize time online, such as those commonly used by social media services and popular games, are unlawful when used on minors .”
Groups signing the petition include: Center for Digital Democracy; Fair play; Accountable Technology; American Academy of Pediatrics; Becca Schmill Foundation, Inc.; Berkeley Media Studies Group; C. Everett Coop Institute at Dartmouth; Human Technology Center; Children and Screens: Institute for Digital Media and Child Development; Coalition on Eating Disorders; Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC); LookUp.live; Lynn’s warrior; Public Education Network; Parent Coalition for Student Privacy; ParentsTogether action; Protect young eyes; public citizen; Together for girls; U.S. Public Interest Research Group; and UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and Health.