Congress Considering $95 Million for Study of Technology’s Effects on Children

By Benjamin Herold — August 15, 2018 3 min read
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A bipartisan bill now in Congress would give the National Institutes of Health $95 million over five years to fund studies on how media and technology effect children.

The proposed Children and Media Research Advancement Act, or CAMRA, outlines an ambitious research agenda. It calls for studies on the impact of “social media, applications, websites, television, motion pictures, artificial intelligence, mobile devices, computers, video games, virtual and augmented reality, and other media formats as they become available” on children’s cognitive, physical, and social-emotional development.

The bill’s prospects are unclear, although it is has the backing of heavy-hitters on both sides of the aisle in the U.S. Senate.

“Our kids are immersed in technology that didn’t exist five years ago and probably won’t exist in another decade,” said Sen. Ben Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska. “Some of that is good and some of that is bad—what’s certain is that we know less than we ought to.”

In the Senate, Sasse was joined by Republicans Roy Blunt (Missouri) and Susan Collins (Maine) and Democrats Michael Bennet (Colorado), Edward Markey (Massachusetts), and Brian Schatz (Hawaii) in sponsoring the CAMRA Act. A companion bill was also introduced in the House by Republican Ted Budd of North Carolina and Democrat John Delaney of Maryland.

Researchers across the country and globe are already busy examining the impact of media and tech on children. Proponents say this new, federally funded research effort is necessary because it will add rigor and independence to the field and allow for a new focus on long-term studies often missing in the current literature.

“The longitudinal aspect of this is really important, because right now we don’t really understand the cause-and-effect relationships” between technology use and children’s development, said Ariel Fox Johnson, the senior counsel for policy and privacy at Common Sense Media, which has been aggressively pushing the CAMRA Act.

Third Time a Charm?

Similar bills were introduced in Congress in 2005 and again in 2007, without ever being passed.

Fox Johnson of Common Sense said she expects this time may be different, in part because the current CAMRA Act also has support from both industry and advocates.

According to a statement released by Sen. Markey’s office, the companies and industry groups supporting the legislation include Facebook and the Internet Association, as well as the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and the Center for Digital Democracy.

“Internet companies care deeply about the safety and well-being of their users and welcome scientific research on this important issue funded through the CAMRA Act,” said Melika Carroll, senior vice president of global government affairs at the Internet Association, a trade group representing leading internet companies, according to the statement.

The current bill calls for the directors of the National Institutes of Health and other leaders to develop a research agenda and fund an “expanded research program,” with a progress report due to Congress one year after the law is enacted.

The bill calls for $15 million per year from 2019 to 2021, and $25 million per year in 2022 and 2023.

In the Senate, the CAMRA Act is currently awaiting consideration by the Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions.

Photo: U.S. Sen. Ed Markey speaks during the 2018 Massachusetts Democratic Party Convention in Worcester, Mass. in June.--Michael Dwyer/AP

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.