For legislators looking to ensure that the online experiences of youth are safe and age-appropriate, including age verification provisions in social media bills that compel platforms to confirm the ages of their users can seem a simple and straightforward solution. However, the risks of disenfranchising users, technical challenges with the verification process, and privacy concerns for users render this an ineffective and potentially harmful option. And for LGBTQ+ youth, age verification has the potential to be particularly isolating and dangerous.
Social media platforms play a crucial role in providing safe spaces for marginalized communities, especially LGBTQ+ youth. The intersection of adolescence and LGBTQ+ identity is already extremely challenging to navigate, and age verification requirements add unnecessary barriers to affirming content and supportive communities which can compound feelings of isolation, depression, and anxiety. Much like parental consent requirements and “best interest of the child” provisions, age verification measures have the potential to limit access to vital support networks, impacting the mental health and well-being of young individuals exploring their identities. Any provisions that restrict access must be carefully assessed to determine the risks for vulnerable populations- and when it comes to age verification, these risks are far too significant.
For one, the LGBTQ+ community has historically faced challenges in maintaining their privacy, and age verification provisions aggravate these concerns. Requiring users to provide personal information and identity documents to online services and social media sites risk inadvertently disclosing one's LGBTQ+ status to family members or guardians who may not be supportive. Social media sites have long been frequent targets for data breaches and cyberattacks. Requiring these sites to access the personal information of users makes these online spaces only more attractive for malicious actors. A breach of privacy can result in serious consequences for the 62% of LGBTQ+ youth in non-affirming homes, including emotional distress, physical harm, or estrangement.
Age verification provisions can also be a direct line to isolation. Young LGBTQ+ individuals often turn to online platforms for support and information when they don't have access to in-person LGBTQ+ communities or resources. Age verification measures could limit their ability to access these vital online communities, resources, and support networks. Additionally, LGBTQ+ individuals who rely on online communities and social media for peer support may be fearful of age verification, as it might deter them from participating in these platforms.
A commonly suggested method of verification is government-issued IDs, but studies show that millions of Americans lack government-issued IDs for a variety of reasons. Young and marginalized people are least likely to have these forms of identification, and statistics show that a mere 25% of 16-year-olds have a driver’s license. Without a way to prove identity to platforms, the LGBTQ+ adults and youth alike - who spend more time online each day than their peers- would be forced offline under these regimes.
Even for those able to provide identity documents, we know that age verification processes largely do not work as intended. One 2022 study found that current age verification methods are significantly flawed, with no existing methods able to reliably confirm age in a way that covers the entire population and protects data privacy in the process. For the 43% of transgender Americans that lack identity documents correctly reflecting their name or gender in particular, these provisions erect additional barriers to accessing online platforms. Official documents that do not align with an affirmed name or gender may not be accepted by age verification methods, exacerbating the risk of being denied access to online spaces and heightening the potential for discrimination and isolation, as these individuals may be forced to navigate platforms under identities that do not fully represent who they are.
Concerns also exist about the overreach of age verification provisions. There is a risk that these provisions may not effectively address the problem while causing unintended consequences for all users. To effectively identify one age group, platforms must verify every user of every age. Whether 16 or 65, every user will be required to entrust their personal information to platforms or their third-parties’ verification services.
Thankfully, for decades federal attempts at age verification requirements have been struck down as unconstitutional. Unfortunately, various states like Utah and Arkansas have pursued such measures with success. As we anticipate these coming into effect in the next few months, many questions stand.
Utah’s S.B. 152 is illustrative of the challenges around implementation of these laws in that it “requires a social media company to verify the age of a Utah resident seeking to maintain or open a social media account.” and many of the bills under consideration include similar language. How are platforms expected to differentiate residents from visitors? How does this extend to Utah residents outside of the state? Unable to navigate questions like these, will social media platforms simply choose to leave the jurisdiction by blocking traffic from Utah?
We estimate that there are 43,000 LGBTQ+ youth who live in Utah. Given the impossibility of effective age verification, these young people are facing isolation from their most crucial source of community.
As they currently stand, age verification provisions pave the way for increased data collection, worsened user privacy, and lessened digital access for LGBTQ+ youth. Age verification measures are not the solution to providing age-appropriate experiences and spaces. Instead, a more effective approach would involve comprehensive federal privacy regulation, digital education, and awareness campaigns. Informing users, parents, and educators about the importance of digital literacy, online safety, and responsible social media use can empower young individuals to navigate the online world responsibly without compromising their privacy.