When lawmakers began investigating the impact of social media on kids in 2021, Zamaan Qureshi was enthralled.

Since middle school he’d watched his friends struggle with eating disorders, anxiety and depression, issues he said were “exacerbated” by platforms like Snapchat and Instagram.

Qureshi’s longtime concerns were thrust into the national spotlight when Meta whistleblower Frances Haugen released documents linking Instagram to teen mental health problems. But as the revelations triggered a wave of bills to expand guardrails for children online, he grew frustrated at who appeared missing from the debate: young people, like himself, who’d experienced the technology from an early age.

“There was little to no conversation about young people and … what they thought should be done,” said Qureshi, 21, a rising senior at American University.

So last year, Qureshi and a coalition of students formed Design It For Us, an advocacy group intended to bring the perspectives of young people to the forefront of the debate about online safety.

They are part of a growing constellation of youth advocacy and activist organizations demanding a say as officials consider new rules to govern kids’ activity online.

The slew of federal and state proposals has served as a rallying cry to a cohort of activists looking to shape laws that may transform how their generation interacts with technology. As policymakers consider substantial shifts to the laws overseeing kids online, including measures at the federal and state level that ban children under 13 from accessing social media and require those younger than 18 to get parental consent to log on, the young advocates — some still in their teens — have been quick to engage.

Now, youth activists have become a formidable lobbying force in capitals across the nation. Youth groups are meeting with top decision-makers, garnering support from the White House and British royalty and affecting legislative proposals, including persuading federal lawmakers to scale back parental control measures in one major bill.

“The tides definitely are turning,” said Sneha Revanur, 18, another member of Design It For Us.

Yet this prominence doesn’t necessarily translate to influence. Many activists said their biggestchallenge is ensuring that policymakers take their input seriously.

“We want to be seen as meaningful collaborators, and not just a token seat at the table,” Qureshi said.

In Washington, D.C., Design It For Us has taken part in dozens of meetings with House and Senate leaders, White House officials and other advocates. In February, the group made its debut testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“We cannot wait another year, we cannot wait another month, another week or another day to begin to protect the next generation,” Emma Lembke, 20, who co-founded the organization with Qureshi, said in her testimony.

Emma Lembke, founder of Log Off Movement, speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on protecting children online Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib)

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who chairs the panel and met with the group again in July, said that Lembke “provided powerful testimony” and that their meetings were one of “many conversations that I’ve had with young folks demonstrating the next generation’s call for change.”

Revanur said policymakers often put too much stock in technical or political expertise and not enough in digital natives’ lifetime of experience and understanding of technology’s potential for harm.

“There’s so much emphasis on a specific set of credentials: having a PhD in computer science or having spent years working on the Hill,” said Revanur, a rising sophomore at Williams College. “It diminishes the importance of the credentials that youth have, which is the credential of lived experience.”

Revanur, who founded the youth-led group Encode Justice, which focuses on artificial intelligence, has met with officials at the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), urging them to factor in concerns about how AI could be used for school surveillance as they drafted a voluntary AI bill of rights.

The office’s former acting director, Alondra Nelson, who led the initiative, said Encode Justice brought policy issues “to life” by describing both real and imagined harms — from “facial recognition cameras in their school hallways [to] the very real anxiety that the prospect of persistent surveillance caused them.”

In July, Vice President Harris invited Revanur to speak at a roundtable on AI with civil rights and advocacy group leaders, a moment the youth activist called “a pretty significant turning point” in “increasing legitimization of youth voices in the space.”

Sneha Revanur, founder of Encode Justice and member of Design It For Us, outside the Capitol. (Courtesy of Sneha Revanur)

There are already signs that those in power are heeding their calls.

Sam Hiner, 20, started college during the covid-19 pandemic and said that social media hurt his productivity and ability to socialize on campus.

“It’s easier to scroll on your phone in your dorm than it is to go out because you get that guaranteed dopamine,” said Hiner, a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Hiner, who in high school co-founded a youth-oriented policy group, worked with lawmakers and children’s safety groups to introduce state legislation prohibiting platforms from using minors’ data to algorithmically target them with content.

He said he held more than 100 meetings with state legislators, advocates and industry leaders as he pushed for a bill to tackle the issue. The state bill, the Social Media Algorithmic Control in Information Technology Act, now has more than 60 sponsors.

Last month, Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, awarded Hiner’s group, Design It For Us and others grants ranging from $25,000 to $200,000 for their advocacy as part of the newly launched Responsible Technology Youth Power Fund. Hiner said he received a surprise call from the royals minutes after learning about the grant.

“As a young person who … has a bit of a chip on my shoulder from feeling excluded from the process traditionally, getting that … buy-in from some of the most influential people in the world was really cool,” he said.

Youth activists’ lobbying efforts are also bearing fruit in Washington.

This summer, Design It For Us led a week of action calling on senators to take up a bill to expand existing federal privacy protections for younger users, the Children and Teens’ Online Privacy Protection Act, and another measure to create a legal obligation for tech platforms to prevent harms to kids, the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA).

A Senate Democratic aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the negotiations, said the advocates played a key role in persuading lawmakers to exclude teens from a provision in KOSA requiring parental consent to access digital platforms. It now only covers those 12 and younger.

Dozens of digital rights groups have expressed concern that the legislation would require tech companies to collect even more data from kids and give parents too much control over their children’s online activity, which could disproportionately harm young LGBT users.

“We were focused on making sure that KOSA did not turn into a parental surveillance bill,” said Qureshi.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), the lead sponsor of the bill, said their mobilization “significantly changed my perspective,” calling their advocacy a “linchpin” to building support for the legislation.

Qureshi and other youth advocates attended a White House event in July at which President Biden surprised spectators by endorsing KOSA and the children’s privacy bill, his most direct remarks on the efforts to date. Days later, the bills advanced with bipartisan support out of the Senate Commerce Committee.

Hiner and other youth advocates said they have worked closely with prominent children’s online safety groups, including Fairplay. Revanur said her group Encode Justice receives funding from the Omidyar Network, an organizationestablished by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar that is a major force in fueling Big Tech antagonists in Washington. Qureshi declined to disclose any funding sources for Design It For Us, beyond its recent grant from the Responsible Technology Youth Power Fund.

Some young activists argue against such tough protections for kids online. The digital activist group Fight for the Future said it has been working with hundreds of young grass-roots activists who are rallying support against the bills, arguing that they would expand surveillance and hurt marginalized groups.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – SEPTEMBER 23: (L-R) Divya Siddarth, Emma Lembke, Zamaan Qureshi, Sneha Revanur and Emma Leiken speak onstage during Unfinished Live at The Shed on September 23, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Roy Rochlin/Getty Images for Unfinished Live)

Sarah Philips, 25, an organizer for Fight for the Future, said young people’s views on the topic shouldn’t be treated as a “monolith,” and that the group has heard from an “onslaught” of younger users concerned that policymakers’ proposed restrictions could have a chilling effect on speech online.

“The youth that I work with tend to be queer, a lot of them are trans and a lot of them are young people of color, and their experience in all aspects of the world, including online, is different,” she said.

There are also lingering questions about the science underlying the children’s safety legislation.

Studies have documented that prolonged social media use can lead to increased anxiety and depression and that it can exacerbate body image and self-esteem issues among younger users. But the research on social media use is still evolving. Recent reports by the American Psychological Association and the U.S. Surgeon General painted a more complex picture of the dynamic and called for more research, finding that social media can also generate positive social experiences for young people.

“We don’t want to get rid of social media. That’s not a stance that most members of Gen Z, I think, would take,” said Qureshi. “We want to see reforms and policies in place that make our online world safer and allow us to foster those connections that have been positive.”

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