Australia Moves to Protect Children From Increasing Social Media Harms

By Victoria Kelly-Clark
Victoria Kelly-Clark
Victoria Kelly-Clark
October 26, 2021 Updated: October 27, 2021

The Australian government is seeking to implement new laws to protect the privacy of teenagers and children using social media platforms.

Announcing the draft legislation on Oct. 25, Attorney-General Michaelia Cash and the Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention, David Coleman, said in a joint media release that the landmark Privacy Legislation Amendment (Enhancing Online Privacy and Other Measures) Bill 2021, would protect all Australians in the digital age.

It will also enable the creation of a binding Online Privacy code for social media services, data brokers, and other large online platforms operating in Australia. This will include social media giants like TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat.

“We know that Australians are wary about what personal information they give over to large tech companies,” Cash said. “We are ensuring their data and privacy will [be] protected and handled with care. Our draft legislation means that these companies will be punished heavily if they don’t meet that standard.”

All online platforms that are subject to the code will need to comply with strict new privacy requirements.

There will also be significantly stronger protections around children with social media platforms being required to verify their users’ age and look to the child’s best interests when handling children’s personal information.

This will include all platforms requiring parental consent for users under the age of 16.

Coleman said that the new provisions around children were needed as there has been a consistent increase in signs of distress and mental ill-health among young people related to social media usage.

“Young people have told us this themselves,” Coleman said. “In a 2018 headspace survey of over 4,000 young people aged 12 to 25, social media was nominated as the main reason youth mental health is getting worse. And the recent leak of Facebook’s own internal research demonstrates the impact social media platforms can have on body image and the mental health of young people.”

“That’s why this legislation is so important. It will provide families with powerful protections and require fundamental changes to the way that social media platforms operate in Australia,” he said.

Social media giant Facebook said that they welcome the announcement, The Australian reported on Oct. 25.

“We’ve been actively calling for privacy regulation and understand the importance of ensuring Australia’s privacy laws evolve at a comparable pace to the rate of innovation and new technology we’re experiencing today,” said Facebook’s director of public policy for Australia and New Zealand, Mia Garlick.

“We have supported the development of international codes around young people’s data, like the UK Age Appropriate Design Code. We’re reviewing the draft Bill and discussion paper released today and look forward to working with the Australian government on this further.”

The comments by Facebook come just weeks after allegations surfaced in the Wall Street Journal that Facebook was aware that its company Instagram was harmful to young girls.

The allegations have resulted in a bipartisan investigation by United States lawmakers Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) into Facebook.

“It is clear that Facebook is incapable of holding itself accountable,” the senators said in the statement. “The Wall Street Journal’s reporting reveals Facebook’s leadership to be focused on a growth-at-all-costs mindset that valued profits over the health and lives of children and teens.”