The Dangers of Legislative Parental Consent Requirements
Updated: 4 days ago
By Carlos Gutierrez, LGBT Tech's Deputy Director & General Counsel
Balancing the online safety of minors and their right to privacy and autonomy is a complex task, and a critically important one. While protecting young individuals from potential harms is a universal goal we all share, we must also respect their right to explore, learn, and connect independently. There are currently a number of bills at the federal and state levels seeking to strike this balance. Unfortunately, many of these bills contain provisions that seem neutral, or even beneficial, on their face, but will actually harm the very children they seek to protect. One such worrisome provision is the parental consent standard.
As they currently stand, parent consent provisions have failed to strike the proper balance between online safety and online autonomy. These laws, which require both teenagers and parents to surrender their personal data to online services for age and identity verification, present a significant risk for all involved. For LGBTQ+ and other vulnerable youth in particular, these laws severely limit their ability to explore their identities and access crucial, often life-saving, information and support networks.
Navigation into adulthood is a complicated journey for all youth, and a deeply personal one for those facing the unique challenges and uncertainties of being LGBTQ+. We estimate the amount of LGBTQ+ teenagers in the United States at more than 5.7 million- for perspective, that number outranks the population of 29 of our 50 states. And for these millions with attractions or identities that defy expectations and norms, social media platforms can provide lifelines to supportive communities and vital resources.
Strict parental consent requirements can effectively erect barriers between LGBTQ+ youth and the supportive communities they rely on. Online spaces are frequently the first places LGBTQ+ youth find others like them, offering a lifeline to understanding and acceptance that is too often lacking in their offline lives. In fact, three-fourths of LGBTQ+ youth report being “more honest” about themselves on the internet than in real life.
Furthermore, where LGBTQ+ young people lack access to in-person services, social media represents access to resources related to identity, mental health, and well-being. Parental consent requirements put this crucial resource out of reach for many LGBTQ+ youth, leaving them to navigate their challenges without guidance. Safe exploration of self is a critical component in self-discovery and self-acceptance, and LGBTQ+ youth deserve the right to navigate their identities without fear of judgment or reprisal.
All too often, that reprisal comes from inside their own home. Fewer than 40% of LGBTQ+ young people report that their home is an affirming space. For transgender and non-binary youth, online spaces are twice as likely to be affirming as their homes. By forcing them to seek approval from parents, these laws effectively risk outing individuals who may not be ready to disclose their identities at home or in homes where their safety may be compromised. Research has shown an increased risk for LGBTQ+ youth to experience verbal, emotional, and physical abuse at home after coming out, with one study reporting that queer youth who’ve experienced family rejection are more than 8 times as likely to attempt suicide than those who did not.
Parental consent provisions in social media laws risk further isolation and discrimination for our most vulnerable young people. Isolation, discrimination, and lack of acceptance contribute to worsened mental health outcomes in all people. For LGBTQ+ youth, already facing higher rates of depression and anxiety than their non-LGBTQ+ peers, it can be deadly. The mental health of young people must be carefully weighed when considering policies that can affect it, and research shows that LGBTQ+ youth who used online communities for support have a lower risk of attempting suicide than those without access. In fact, a 2022 systematic review of studies on social media use by young members of the LGBTQ+ community found that social media has an overall positive correlation with reduced mental health concerns and increased well-being.
The harms of parental consent social media laws also extend far past LGBTQ+ youth. Whether requiring mailed consent forms, parental credit card usage, or the provision of government IDs, the process of age and identity verification is time-consuming and risk-heavy for all involved. The debate around safety online is one that necessitates careful consideration and ongoing dialogue.
These concerns are not theoretical, as these provisions are already embedded in laws that have been passed and in bills currently being considered. Dangerous legislative efforts are in play on both federal and state levels. The recently-introduced Kids Online Safety Act, or KOSA, requires platforms to implement tools for users it has “knowledge fairly implied” are minors, a vague provision that will require platforms attempting to abide by it to use instruments verifying child-parent relationships. The Protecting Kids on Social Media Act demands parental consent for anyone under the age of eighteen to have even basic platform access.
Perhaps most concerningly, Utah and Arkansas have already passed such laws and slated them to go into effect within the next six months. These states were some of the first to ban gender-affirming care for LGBTQ+ youth as part of discriminatory legislative campaigns. Teenagers in Arkansas and Utah- which we estimate at 47,000 and 43,000 respectively- are already facing tremendous hurdles to their exploration and expression just by virtue of being Arkansians and Utahns. Stripping their access to social media platforms and the vast community resources they provide as well is a dangerous step in the wrong direction.
Moving forward, it is crucial to explore alternative methods of ensuring online safety for minors while respecting their independence. Improved education about internet safety, the development of age-appropriate online spaces, and open communication between parents and their children where possible are all options worth developing. By finding a middle ground that respects both child safety and autonomy, we can create a more inclusive and supportive online environment for all young individuals, including LGBTQ+ youth.