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Opinion: Age-Appropriate Design Code would require tech companies to prioritize safety of children – instead of profit

Lawmakers are considering whether to establish the Maryland Age-Appropriate Design Code to keep kids safe online. photo by Rawpixel.

By Marisa Shea

The writer is U.S. senior policy manager for 5Rights Foundation, a supporter of the Maryland Age-Appropriate Design Code.

As a mother of a 3 1/2 year old, I have spent hours upon hours reading product reviews and trying to find the best, safest products for my family. Even before our son was born, I was researching what car seat had the best ratings, and as he grew older that research continued late into the night to determine whether sippy cups really destroy his oral development. From numerous conversations with friends and fellow parents, I know I am not alone in this almost compulsive level of research.

In this age of constant access to information, we all feel immense pressure to make sure our children have what they need to develop into their best selves. And we all have some peace of mind because children’s products in the physical world must meet certain safety standards to be on the market. I could randomly select my child’s car seat with little to no consequences — because the law requires it to be safe.

But here’s the scary part: these same rules do not apply to the digital products that are becoming increasingly unavoidable in the lives of our children. While we often hear about the importance of screen time limitations and parental controls, many parents would be surprised to know that there is currently no law — state or federal — regulating the design of online services, products, or features to make sure they’re safe for use by children and teens.

This is why I am thrilled, as a mother, an advocate, and resident of St. Mary’s County, to be working with Maryland Delegates Jared Solomon (D-Montgomery) and C.T. Wilson (D-Charles) and Senators Ben Kramer (D-Montgomery) and Chris West (R-Baltimore County) to pass the Maryland Age-Appropriate Design Code. The proposed legislation would require tech companies and platforms to create products that prioritize the safety, privacy, and well-being of children — instead of profit.

The legislation would:

  1. Limit the ability of tech platforms to collect and exploit kids’ data to push harmful materials (such videos and information that is not age appropriate) into their feeds.
  2. Require platforms to set stringent privacy settings, such as turning location settings off by default.
  3. Require platforms to provide clear mechanisms for young users to control their feeds and tailor their experience to the information and materials they want to view.

The ubiquity of tech in our day-to-day lives and the way products and their algorithms are designed to keep our eyes glued to the screen mean we are far past the point of parental controls and screen time limitations being enough.

A similar law in place in the United Kingdom has already led to tangible change for kids across the pond — including TikTok turning off strangers’ ability to message kids, Google turning on Safe Search by default, and YouTube disabling autoplay by default for users under the age of 18. Kids in Maryland currently don’t have these protections and rights, but the Age-Appropriate Design Code would change that.

It is critical that our leaders in Annapolis set some basic design ground rules for the tech companies creating these products and services — to demand online products, services, and features be created with our children’s well-being in mind. Parents will continue to play a role in determining their child’s use of and relationship to certain tech products and platforms, but a safe, level playing field is a necessary starting point.

The Maryland Age-Appropriate Design Code will require tech companies to take these basic proactive steps and help us protect the health and wellbeing of all of Maryland’s children and teens — that’s why organizations representing both students (Maryland Association of Student Councils) and teachers (Maryland State Education Association) are supporting this bill.

This legislation gives Maryland the opportunity to usher in a new era of innovative product design that considers, rather than monetizes, the next generation. It’s time that we lead the way.


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Opinion: Age-Appropriate Design Code would require tech companies to prioritize safety of children – instead of profit