Earlier this year in California, two State Assembly members— Democrat Buffy Wicks and Republican Jordan Cunningham— introduced the California Age-Appropriate Design Code. The legislation includes a range of measures intended to safeguard young people online. It is based in part on the UK’s age-appropriate design code, a set of standards for companies to ensure they are taking the interests of youth into consideration when designing and developing online and digital services that came into full effect last year.
The California Age-Appropriate Design Code would place limitations on what companies can do with youth data, including tracking location and profiling. It puts limitations on manipulative design, and includes transparency measures so users are aware and consent to the use of their information. The bill makes the California attorney general responsible enforcement of the state’s rules, opening up the possibility of litigation or fines against companies that do not follow the Code. It would also require the California Privacy Protection Agency to create a Children’s Data Protection Task Force that would formulate recommendations on best practices.
A coalition of civil society and tech policy groups supports the Code, including organizations such as Common Sense, Accountable Tech, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the Sesame Workshop, the Consumer Federation of California, and the National Hispanic Media Coalition. Industry groups, such as TechNet and the California Chamber of Commerce, oppose the bill, and other independent experts have raised concerns in particular about requirements for age verification. The California State Assembly voted 72-0 to pass the bill, and it is now with the California Senate.
For this week’s podcast, I spoke to three people— all college students and activists— who support it, in part due to their own experiences:
- Aliza Kopans, a rising sophomore at Brown University, cofounder of Tech(nically) Politics and an intern at Accountable Tech;
- Emma Lembke, a rising sophomore at the Washington University in St. Louis, founder of the Log Off Movement, cofounder of Tech(nically) Politics and an intern at Accountable Tech
- Khoa-Nathan Ngo, rising college sophomore and a youth collaborator at GoodforMedia.
What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the discussion.
So I’m so pleased that you three could join me today. I would love to give my listeners a little sense of who you are and the work you’re doing and what brought you to it. So maybe let’s just go round Aliza, I’ll start with you.
So I think my journey into this digital wellness space starts at birth. My parents were really intentional about raising myself and my younger sister without too much access to technology. Story I like to share frequently is that we had a TV in our living room growing up, but my parents never turned it on when myself and my sister were in the room. And so we just grew up with a box in our living room and that was perfectly normal.
And as I got older, I both adopted and adapted those values for myself. I received an iPhone at the end of eighth grade and Instagram around the same time. And quickly noticed my deteriorating mental health that happened in tandem with getting social media for the first time. And after about a year with Instagram, I deleted it alongside one of my best friends and just felt such big improvements in my overall wellbeing and self confidence.
And my fall of my junior year in high school, I attended the Mountain School, which is a semester school program for high school juniors in Vermont. And there I went four months without my phone. And I think that was one of the biggest catalysts to my work today, of it’s possible to create human bonds and connections without having phones as a means of making those connections and breaking the ice. And we are able to sit in our discomfort and awkward situations and conversations, and we can get through it without whipping our phones out of our pockets and mindlessly scrolling through Instagram.
And then when I returned to my large suburban public school and was once again sucked back into this vortex of the digital world, COVID hit. And so suddenly we could only be interacting with each other via our devices and via these digital platforms. And from that, they’re really stemmed this need, I think for myself and for so many other people to figure out, how can we make the digital world one that is safe and healthy for everyone? Especially the younger generation who’s so susceptible to these divisive marketing tactics and techniques and algorithms that these platforms employ.
And I really started my work off from this bottoms up approach that if we, as individuals and parents and teachers in smaller communities, work to change the relationships we have with our technology, all the problems will be solved. And we’ll be able to reap the maximum benefit from the digital world while circumventing all of the harms.
And about a year into that this space, I was on a call with Center for Humane Tech and met Emma officially there. And we started talking about how we feel like there’s a real deficit of youth voices in this legislative space around tech regulation. And sure we can work as individuals to move our phone to gray scale and delete our apps, et cetera, et cetera. But if these platforms are still designed to get us and keep us hooked, there’s only so much we can do. And we need systemic change in order to develop a digital world that is safe and healthy for all users.
And that was the birth of Tech(nically) Politics, which is Emma and mine’s movement that’s working to get youth voices into this legislative space around tech regulation, and really leverage the stories and experiences of the first generation to grow up with technology in our pockets at all times so that we can shape the digital world through governance in a way that works for the still-developing minds of the younger population.
And that’s just been such empowering, challenging at times, work. And over the past year, I’ve interviewed over 65 people, I have over two hours of footage documenting the experiences of young people in this digital world. And thanks to Accountable Tech’s support this summer, I’m working on releasing episodes that will be used as a resource for everyone. And especially working to compel lawmakers to really take into account our lived experiences.
So that was a bit of a long winded answer, but that is a synopsis of my journey in the space and I just feel so grateful to have met and worked with so many really amazing people.
Emma, how about you?
Mine was more from a negative experience and it kind of grappling with, and then working through social media addiction. So like Aliza, I explored the digital world, obviously from a young age, got social media at 12 years old, around sixth grade. And then from sixth to ninth grade, really, was spending five to six hours a day mindlessly scrolling, could feel my anxiety and depression just increasing as I was on these apps for longer and longer periods. Having disordered eating kind of appear in my life from having to scroll down these rabbit holes that were just really detrimental to my mental health, and not really knowing how to get out.
Eventually in the ninth grade, I hit a breaking point. I heard a buzz in the other room, reached for my phone and I remember just finally thinking, “Why am I like a dog? This is a Pavlovian response and I feel as though I’m stuck in this parasitic relationship and I have no agency. Like what is happening there?” So that line of questioning then spiraled into research from social media bad to how can I develop healthier tech habits. And then I quickly realized that in this plethora of data and studies that are appearing showing the negative correlation, the positive correlation between increased rates of anxiety and OCD and suicide with increased rates of being in these like unregulated online spaces. There were no youth voices that were really leading the conversations on how to improve our world, how to improve our relationship with technology.
Because being a member of generation Z, I think we have this very unique perspective that social media is multifaceted. It can be used for amazing things. It can really help connect people, it can be an expressive tool. But right now it’s not a tool and it can really harm kids and young users, especially when it’s unregulated.
So that propelled me to then create the Log Off Movement, which is where I kind of got into the space regarding digital wellbeing, the global community of teens that come together to have these conversations. And then through that, found Aliza. From there, got more involved wanting to explore my political interest regarding tech advocacy and creating this online world and being more protective than it is right now and regulated.
And then from there, really explored my relationship with Accountable Tech and advocacy efforts. And was so lucky to eventually get to this point where we’re developing out the Design It For Us campaign in conjunction with this amazing legislation that’s moving in California. We’ve gotten really lucky. I’ve gotten really lucky to have this passion to get involved at this precipice, this super important moment when something is actually in the works. When for so long, people in the space told me, “If you want to see actual change on a legislative basis, you need to wait for a while.” But the wait is kind of over and now we’re hoping to take it across the finish line.
So I want to come back to that and come back to the California Age-Appropriate Design Code in our discussion. But, Nathan, first let’s hear from you. How did you get looped into this activity?
My journey with digital wellness actually did not start tech focused. The reason why I became interested in the first place was because around high school, there were some really bad systemic issues going around in my high school. And that’s how I started my work just in mental health in general. And it’s also how I started my work in Asian American advocacy.
So starting off with my mental health journey, there were a lot of systems in place where I grew up, where it was detrimental to the mental health of me and my peers. And I really, really wanted to use my lived experience to work on that and to advocate for that. So repairing relationships between school resource officers and the student communities they serve, increasing the availability of mental health resources. That’s where my work started. And my work with Asian American advocacy was always there, but it really took off during 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. And the way that Asian Americans were viewed in the country was completely shifted. So those were just kind of my two starting points.
But my work in youth mental health, the more I was looking at what was impacting youth and what was affecting us, the more I couldn’t get away from the role that social media and technology played in our overall deteriorating mental health. And in terms of Asian American advocacy, the way that social media spreads disinformation and the way that impacts non-English speaking communities cannot be underestimated. Because when you look at those who flag disinformation, misinformation and so on, it’s primarily English speakers. Which means that when you look at how misinformation is spread in non-English speaking communities, it is absolutely rampant. It increases mistrust of the COVID-19 vaccine, it ruins democracy in Southeast Asian, in particular. So even in that space, I wasn’t able to get away from the role that social media and technology played and making those issues so much worse. So eventually those both just kind of came to a head and I found myself working as a youth collaborator with good for media. Where I was able to work on all the issues that really mattered to me as a youth, as an Asian American and as both.
So let’s talk a little bit about this coalition that’s come together that you all are involved in. It’s not just, of course, youth organizations, you’ve got some of the largest civil society groups that are concerned about tech. Who would like to tell us a little bit about this coalition and the Design It For Us Campaign? Aliza, do you want to do that?
Sure. I can kick us off with that. So the Design It For Us campaign stemmed from this desire to include youth in the coalition and I’ve just found this work to be so invigorating. As young people, we can’t come to the solution by ourselves. And as the older generation, we can’t come to the solution by ourselves. And so having so many powerhouses in this field and in social justice movement in the digital wellness space to be working together, to figure out how can we pass legislation that will set a precedent in this country that we will no longer sit back passively as individuals and as communities in a society as a whole? And watching this digital world disrupt the health and wellbeing of entire generations.
And so the California Age-Appropriate Design Code is also referred to as the kids code is based off of some UK legislation that’s proven to be very effective in reducing the harms that social media companies and digital platforms have on younger users. And would set a precedent in our country for any digital platform that is accessed by people under the age of 18, needs to have default settings that work to protect the privacy and health of those users. And I think the impact that this would have would just be so profound if you’re a 10 year old on YouTube and auto play is automatically disabled. Maybe you’ll only watch the video you went there to watch. And you get to return to your homework afterwards, instead of spending five hours just mindlessly ingesting this content because of YouTube’s algorithm and because of auto play being there.
And one thing that I talk about a lot, despite my work in this sphere and really being aware of the issues that it raises. My relationship with technology is not perfect by any means. And every time I open up Netflix on a new device, I have to search up how you disable auto play, it’s not clear. And you have to go through so many loopholes, you can’t do it on mobile devices. And if it was just set as the default, that these little techniques that companies use to keep us hooked, especially for younger kids who just have a lack of awareness due to our less developed brains of the fact that this isn’t so healthy for me right now. If the precedent is that these online platforms are just safer for younger kids and for people with less awareness and perception to the fact that these platforms are having a really negative toll on them.
The good that would create, I think would be so, so impactful. And really let us leverage all of the good and all of the human connection that is made possible through this new technology, without suffering from the cons of it. And I can hand it over to Emma to talk a little bit about the Design It For Us campaign, which is a collaboration between Tech(nically) Politics and Log Off Movement. And working to get the youth voice involved in these efforts to push the kids code.
Absolutely. And yeah, Aliza, I think, really hit the nail in the head. When you said, it is an opportunity to really protect kids. It’s not meant to stifle innovation, to push kids out of online platforms and online spaces. It really is just a way to say, “We’re allowing you to explore and reap the benefits to express yourself, to connect in ways that won’t harm you, that we’re not putting your safety at risk, we’re not putting your mental health, your physical health at risk.” Really standing up and saying that kids deserve to explore and reap the benefits of an online space without being stuck in environments that were designed by adults for adults. It should have kids in mind, kids should really be protected.
So that propelled both of us into saying, we need to get involved in this conversation. It needs to have that proactive angle that is really baked into the legislation. Of saying, this is not just reactionary, we want to move forward and set this precedent for better design. So we said, “Okay, let’s move forward and say, we want things to be designed for us. Let’s take a proactive, really helpful angle to get people involved.”
So Design It For Us is just our call to action. There are multiple pieces that are involved with it. Right now we have this open letter to tech CEOs, urging them to support the age appropriate design code that Aliza and I drafted and that we were getting signatures on. And then also in terms of pushing forth the messaging, we just are encouraging people to share their own design it for blank called to action. So Aliza and I put design it for me, design it for us, design it for students.
And it also is this lovely moment where we can engage in this cross-generational dialogue of saying, “My mom, even though she’s not a kid anymore, she still wants to see online spaces protected for me and for my kids in the future and for students and for everyone that she really is involved that is not being protected right now.” So it is a really lovely moment to see anyone in the community come together to stand up and to say we not only demand, expect, but we really deserve for technology to be designed for us in mind.
Maybe Nathan, I’ll put this to you, but how are your peers responding to this? Do you find that it’s easy to get your peers involved in this? Do they agree with you on the harms that you describe? Or do you have to convert folks?
I definitely think our peers 100% agree with us. Our awakening was more so like getting into advocacy and getting into legislative work, but it wasn’t really agreeing or disagreeing with whether or not technology was bad for us. I think across the board, we all know it. As young people we’re like … our lives, our dollars, our attention spans are going away. Our mental health is deteriorating. But everyone has an iPhone, every single one of our peers have it. It’s almost like something that we view as like a necessary evil almost. And it’s just seen as this large force that you just got to live with.
If we do have to do any converting, it’s not to get others to understand that social media is bad for you or that technology can be nefarious in one way or another. It’s the fact that it does not have to be a part of your life. The status quo does not have to be this way and that if we get together and act for change, it is possible. And I think that’s why the California Age-Appropriate Design Code, this like rallying cry for all of us, because we’re seeing like all of our criticisms and like all of our beliefs just being put into action. That’s what makes the ADC so impactful and so meaningful. And I think that once we get a bill like this through, the momentum that we can get from our peers to see that it is possible will be immense. So that’s why this is so important to us. It’s like, this is the stepping stone.
Can one of you perhaps just tell us a little bit about where the California Age-Appropriate Design Code is in the legislative process. You’ve got a key moment coming up very shortly.
Right now this is very important for us because things are moving. In the next few weeks there will be a vote to continue looking at amendments and edits. And then Aliza can kind of talk you through like where it’s going to go after that and why the timeline for the Design It For Us campaign is so important. Because for the first time we are seeing momentum, but it’s really important to jump in and get involved now. Because that momentum is only ramping up and changes are going to kind of be moving and Aliza can talk through to specific keys in the legislation and things that really need to be kept to make impact specifically what we’ve seen in the UK.
There will be a vote on August 11th. So once this podcast is released, just in a few days after that. And in that committee there’s space for some of the key elements of this bill to be altered. And so a lot of tech lobbyists and CEOs are pushing for the age that the ADC covers to be dropped from 18 down to 16. And some are even going so far to say 13. And as young people, we know that the harms of social media don’t just disappear once you turn 14 or once you turn 17. And as an almost 19 year old, I still struggle with it. And so just the importance of keeping that provision in the bill.
And then also this clause of platforms that are likely to be accessed by kids. And again, I think as pretty much anybody in this country today, we know that sure YouTube Kids exist, but also children go to regular YouTube platform. And even if that’s not scripted or presented as a platform that’s likely to be accessed for kids, kids still access it quite regularly. And thus there needs to be protections on that site, as well. And so trying to keep those two while they may, on the surface level, seem minor, they will have such a large impact on how this bill is able to protect younger people in the face of big tech in the digital world.
And then after this August 11th vote, there will be some more movement before it either passes or doesn’t, before the end of August. And so in the week before … or in this coming week, we will be releasing a bunch of ads in California, newspapers leveraging the voices from the Design It For Us campaign in efforts of saying like, there is public pressure behind this and the youth are here and speaking and using whatever platforms we have access to, to demand this change that as Emma said, we simply deserve. It is a human right to be able to use the internet and be able to use it safely.
And then in the following weeks, we will continue to work on our social media campaign efforts and collect stories from people talking about who they want the internet to be designed for and releasing that as possibly more ad campaigns, those steps will happen after this push next week.
Something that’s really important that we want to emphasize is that you don’t have to be in California to support the Design It For Us campaign or to support these efforts. Like I’m in Birmingham, Alabama, Aliza’s in Massachusetts and we all are across the nation. But what this is doing is it really is setting a standard moving forward for states and also this protection will cover a lot of kids that are not necessarily just based out of California. So we want to emphasize that this is a push that will affect you, that will impact you going forward into the future. Especially if you’re a teen or if you’re an individual who really wants to see a safer online environment and space.
We also want to say that kids who are 16 or 17 deserve as much protection as a 13 year old. There are challenges, they evolve, and we want to work to push the narrative that everyone deserves protection. We want to protect as many people for as long as possible. And when I was a 16 year old female, 16 year old girl scrolling on YouTube and having that rabbit hole that led to really kind of harmful content as a young woman. I wish that I wouldn’t have had that auto scroll and that auto play. I wish there had been mechanisms like this piece of legislation to say, “No, by default, you cannot put a 16 or 17 year old in that position. They deserve that protection.” So we really want to emphasize that everyone deserves that level of regulation. And we don’t want to see the age drop. So we’re working really hard to make sure that people understand these specifics of the bill and why they are really important to keep in.
And one more thing to add, just on top of that. That we want the internet to be a safer place for everyone under the age of 18. And we’re also … this bill is not going to apply the same standards that protect a 13 year old to a 17 year old. And so those will adjust based on your age. And so again, to just emphasize the intent and the actuality of this bill, it’s not going to be stripping away rights from young people online. It’s taking away what is in my mind, not a right of big tech to be using, taking, storing, using data of their youngest users in really pervasive manners.
What exposure have you had to lawmakers? For instance, Buffy Wicks and Jordan Cunningham in California. And what exposure have you had to the tech firms or to the tech lobby directly, have they engaged with you at all?
I can give a brief rundown of my perspective in the space, and I know the three of us each have slightly different experiences. So I think it could be valuable to hear from everyone here. In terms of big tech lobbyists, I think we’ve definitely had to elbow our way into that space a little bit.
And Emma and I drafted an open letter to tech CEOs, and that will be published as part of our ad series in this coming week. But again, just as youth getting a seat at the table is oftentimes a struggle, especially when it’s up against money in these platforms with such big control in so many spheres. And then as for lawmakers, I’ve been really pleasantly surprised to see people turning to youth in this area. And we’ve been on a couple of briefings with Buffy Wicks, we’ve had calls with people on The Hill and more of background calls. So they’re just getting information on our experiences and things that we’re seeing. And one of the people we spoke to is actually a professor at Brown, so hopefully I’ll be collaborating with him in the fall with an in person Center at Brown to work for Humane Tech. I’ve been really overjoyed to see the genuine, interest and concern. It appears lawmakers are taking to our demands and needs and desires in this space. But definitely a bit of a different experience on the tech CEO side of things.
So in terms of interacting with lawmakers, me and my team– for Good For Media, me and my fellow youth activists– we were able to record video testimonies. And that was used by our head and advisor, Vicky Harrison to advocate at the California State Assembly Committee. Where she used our testimony combined with her professional experience and research to show the legislators what exactly was at stake here. And it was really, really effective in getting our message across.
In addition to even just being invited to speak with us and having our testimonies be shown, we definitely have a lot more lawmakers interested and that we know that they are also using our video testimonies as well. Because those who have been swayed to seeing our side of things, also agree that youth testimony is really, really important.
In terms of like, rubbing shoulders or tech CEOs and so on. I have to say they aren’t very eager to meet us and they aren’t very eager to open the door when we knock either. Which is understandable. I think that what we’re doing here may or may not affect their bottom line. But tech shouldn’t be centered on profit, it should be centered on humans. And that’s all we’re doing. We’re not looking to undercut anyone or harm anyone’s profit. We’re just trying to center technology and the future that it brings on our children, on our youth and our collect wellbeing as humans.
Emma, did you have anything to add to that?
No, just to really echo what everyone was saying. There isn’t much receptiveness right now from people within the tech industry. I say people within the tech industry that are a part of these big corporations. I think it is important to note, I’ve had a lot of conversations with technologists and business owners who are parts of smaller organizations who want to become more humane, who want to interact with us and understand, how can we best support young users?
So I have had a lot of traction with smaller organizations, and I think it’s for me a really lovely note and a good sign that people are beginning to see the need for this shift. Even if it’s coming from smaller orgs first, hopefully that we know seep into the bloodstream of larger corporations and see that’s the precedent and what is being said and what people want.
And then yes, in terms of legislators, we’ve had calls. I was on a call with Accountable Tech, we talked with other national figures related to political movement in the space. But California reps have been incredibly receptive to speak with us, to hear our stories and continue to bake our work and experiences into all of their narratives, pushing this moving forward. So we are incredibly thankful for the receptiveness and engagement within California.
And what’s next for each of you? Will you make a career of this? Or do you see this as connected to some other aspect of what you hope to do in the long run? Or are you just taking it a day at a time? Nathan, I’ll put you on the spot.
For me, I always knew that what I wanted to work in was definitely youth mental health. But the work that we do in Humane Tech and in Tech Ethics is actually really intellectually stimulating and engaging. And when you see like the fruits of your work, which culminates in the ADC even being proposed, it’s incredibly fulfilling. So I think that sticking around this space has definitely influenced what I’m going to be doing.
Obviously you can’t do work like this and then be like, “Hey, I’m going to be a carpenter.” There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just that the work that I’ve done has been so impactful for me personally, that it’s definitely going to shape not only who I am, but who I will be. It will definitely be centered on youth, it will definitely be centered on youth mental health. And with the way we’ve been seeing the way things are going, I can’t see myself separating tech work from that.
Emma, you want to go next?
Absolutely. I went into Wash U thinking this was going to be my step away, it was going to be a lovely note that I did in high school, working with Tech Ethics. Very quickly was pulled back in when all of this started moving, when I started talking more with Aliza, getting Tech(nically) Politics off the ground. And it really has become, I think, a lifelong passion for me.
I think I am someone who really is interested in the political side of this, the political aspect in having a top down processing model in terms of regulating tech companies and creating safer digital spaces. But for me, it really also does fulfill this really wonderful advocacy passion that I have because tech touches everything. So if I work to make tech spaces more humane, I feel as though I’m also making more conversations accessible. And I feel like there is a larger impact there. So getting involved in Tech Ethics moving forward is something that I will continue to do. And then hopefully I will either lean into the political aspect of that, or just work with organizations to continue this work. So this is something I’ll be working in for a while, and I’m just incredibly grateful that I can begin at such a young age.
As Emma just touched upon, the fact that every social justice movement impacts other ones. And I think because tech is so new in the capacity, we’re seeing it today. And it’s so intrinsic to pretty much every corner of life, especially as young person today. It’s here to stay.
And in my work in the past two years, I feel so lucky to have cared about this at a moment in which there’s become a space for youth voices. And I’ve grown so much through my work with Emma and through meeting partners and learning how to compile my own experiences in a way that’s impactful for other people and create a platform for my peers to share their own stories. I will be taking a step back from Tech(nically) Politics in the fall and publishing the video episodes as I set out to do.
And then working to get more involved with hands on things on campus and I’m intending to major in public health. And it was astonishing in the spring, I took an intro to public health course, and I realized that Tech(nically) Politics and my work in the sphere, this is a part of a public health movement. And so working to take all the lessons I’ve learned from the space and the amazing connections that I’ve been fortunate enough to create and be a part of as I forge ahead and hopefully do something that’s involved with people. And hopefully pull Spanish in there and maybe work on food justice. And so I definitely think I’ll be moving away from this specific niche in social justice, but it’s been so formative for my interests and for how I’m thinking about my future.
Well, I think that’s a good place for us to wrap up. I want to thank each of you for speaking to me today, and I wish you the absolute best in all of those endeavors and all of those potential futures that are ahead of you. So thank you so much.
Thank you, Justin.
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & Innovation. He is an associate research scientist and adjunct professor at NYU Tandon School of Engineering. Opinions expressed here are his own.