The new ratings initiative focuses on teens' online safety

Imagine letting a child or teenager see a movie without any guidance on the film’s appropriateness for their age. You might settle for an animated movie that surprised you and your 8-year-old with nonstop vulgarity. Or you discover that the action movie your 13-year-old watched depicted explicit sex.

Parents generally prefer to avoid exposing their children to inappropriate content and count on movie and TV ratings, however imperfect, to help them do exactly that. But as mental health advocate and fashion designer Kenneth Cole argues, parents have no such resources or guidelines when it comes to the Internet, which is where their children and teens spend a significant amount of their time.

“We allow them to exist in this treacherous space with unlimited access to content anywhere, posted by anyone,” Cole told Mashable.

That’s why Cole, founder of The Mental Health Coalition, convened a group of expert consultants, including in mental health and online safety, to create a “first” rating system on social media, search engines and gaming platforms.


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The Safe Online Standards for Kids’ Mental Health (SOS) initiative launched Thursday with the ambitious goal of developing tested safety standards for youth and young adults aged 13 to 24. The multi-year project will begin testing the standards next year and aims to implement them in 2025.

Dr. Dan Reidenberg, a suicide prevention expert who helped lead the initiative, told Mashable that while improvements have been made to young people’s online safety features, there is still more work to be done. One area he says deserves more attention is young people’s ability to exchange messages with bullying, violent or threatening content.

Reidenberg noted that standards could eventually be developed on the technology used to detect and block such content and perhaps prevent it from reaching its intended recipient. (For many years, Reidenberg worked as an unpaid consultant to major tech companies on features to improve youth safety.)

Reidenberg and Cole both stressed that the initiative does not consider technology to be the “enemy.” They instead hope to work collaboratively with major tech companies, which they say lack common standards followed by the industry at large.

Cole said it is “unreasonable” to expect companies to adopt best practices if their competitors refuse to do the same. Ideally, she added, companies subject to the standards would adopt them uniformly. According to Cole, while companies could see screen time decrease if they follow the standards, a one-size-fits-all approach would avoid a loss of market share.

While household names like Google have supported the initiative, Cole said, it is not supported with funding from technology companies, nor have senior advisors declared related conflicts of interest.

Tech companies may be interested in joining the initiative as a cooperative gesture, particularly as they seek to maintain the protection of a long-standing federal law known as Section 230. The provision largely immunizes companies from liability when their users post inappropriate or violent content, or when they harm each other.

Reidenberg said the initiative will take into consideration every aspect regulating online safety, including Section 230.

“I think we need to look at everything,” he said.

In the future, Cole said there could be an enforcement mechanism created by lawmakers. Currently, a patchwork of state laws aims to improve youth safety online; some of these laws have been challenged by tech companies. The proposed federal legislation would, among other measures, impose fines on companies that expose children to harmful content and crack down on advertising aimed at minors.

The initiative’s launch comes in the wake of a Surgeon General’s advisory on the risks and harms of social media use, as well as new guidelines on social media use issued by the American Psychological Association.

Experts on the initiative include Dr. Mitch Prinstein, chief science officer of the American Psychological Association; Dr. Matthew K. Nock, psychologist and researcher at Harvard University; and Larry Magid, CEO of the nonprofit Connect Safely.

The Mental Health Coalition includes members such as The Trevor Project, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and the Child Mind Institute.

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