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What PA SB 22 Really Means for Pennsylvanians

November 30, 2023

The Trojan Horse. Brightly colored poisonous frogs. A wolf in sheep’s clothing. We see things in nice packages and assume there’s no danger. We are told legislation will protect teens’ mental health and assume that it will. The reality is much more complicated than that, and it is important to understand that not all legislation is as it seems.

PA SB 22, An Act amending Title 50 (Mental Health) of the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes, was introduced by Senator Vincent J. Hughes of District 7 on June 14, 2023, It was created with the rationale that social media is harming the mental health of teenagers. While its intentions may be pure, the bill has serious implications for all of our rights online. PA SB 22 will:

  • Hold social media companies responsible for “intentionally, knowingly, recklessly or negligently” encouraging or causing a minor to access content that the social media company knows may be detrimental to the minor’s physical and mental health and well-being or that may increase the risk of death.
    • Content in this category would include eating disorders, violence, substance abuse, sexual exploitation, and suicide. However, it is possible that the bill would extend to cover other topics as well.
  • Prevent the use of features that increase a minor’s time and engagement spent on the social media platform. This would include algorithms that deliver curated content to users.
  • Prohibit minors from creating a social media account without the explicit, written consent of a minor’s parent or guardian.
  • Require social media companies to remove an account created without parental or guardian consent and notify the parent or guardian about the account.

This last clause, in particular, intrudes on the rights of parents to raise their children as they see fit, without government interference. It requires parents to surveillance their children, who, as a result of this, may be unable to access resources and information that they need.

The positive intentions of this bill do not outweigh the severe impact that the legislation would have on our human and Constitutional rights. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares that everyone has the right to freedom of speech and expression. This right includes the ability to share one’s beliefs without interference and to receive and share information through any form of media. PA SB 22 directly violates this fundamental right. It additionally violates minors’ First Amendment rights because parents can stop a minor from creating a social media account where they can speak freely and can also monitor what that minor is posting on social media. Under PA SB 22, young people will also be unable to access content, which is a violation of their right to education. Furthermore, if a minor were to post something that was deemed to be no longer allowed, that post would be removed. This should not be the case unless the post is hate speech. Under this new bill, a much broader category will likely be considered damaging.

The most vulnerable groups are the ones that this will most heavily impact. The definition of harmful is subjective, and content on gender-affirming care, accessing birth control and abortion services, and other important information that has been deemed “damaging” by some may be blocked. Attorney General Paxton of Texas exemplifies this. Paxton recently signed on to letters to Apple and Google demanding they raise the maturity rating of TikTok on their application stores. Paxton claims that young people should not have access to the application as any potential exposure to sexual content can lead to a pornography addiction or sexual exploitation. However, under Paxton’s definition of sexual content, sex education is included, meaning that important educational information on health, sexuality, contraception, and relationships would be blocked. Similar content will likely be blocked under PA SB 22.

It is critical for youth to access information such as this. If this bill passes, parents will have total control over all content their child sees on social media. For kids with parents who are anti-LGBT, this could be incredibly isolating and harmful.

Beyond the question of what the word “harmful” actually means is the question of how this legislation will be enforced. It may share more data than is already being shared. It is unclear in the bill how the age of minors will be verified, how the consent of the parent or guardian will be verified, and who will be responsible for monitoring the content that social media accounts will put forward. It would be irresponsible to pass legislation with such unclear execution, especially when the execution of PA SB 22 will diminish people’s right to digital privacy.

PA SB 22 is eerily similar to other legislation that will violate both the fundamental human rights of Americans and our Constitutional rights under the First Amendment. The Kids Online Safety Act is a national bill that also has intentions of protecting minors. Like PA SB 22, however, KOSA will over-moderate content, prevent minors from accessing important informational material, and stop the exchange of ideas between minors online. Regardless of how nicely packaged these pieces of legislation are, it’s important that we look beyond the outward presentation to the true content of the bills and that we encourage others to do the same. It is not unreasonable to want to keep kids safe, nor is it unreasonable to want to protect their rights to privacy and free speech. What we must not do is sacrifice one for the other. Freedom and safety can coexist.

To oppose this bill contact your representative today.


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A person rests on a beige couch with earphones connected to an apple laptop. The person wears a black short sleaved black shirt and the laptop is a pink and purple color with a large white apple on it. (Photo by Steinar Engeland )

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