FTC hires child psychologist to guide internet rules

The Federal Trade Commission plans to hire at least one child psychologist who can guide its work on internet regulation…

Promoting healthy technology use for children. Photo: apa.org

…Democratic Commissioner Alvaro Bedoya told The Record in an interview published Monday.

FTC Chair Lina Khan backs the plan, Bedoya told the outlet, adding that he hopes it can become a reality by next fall, though the commission does not yet have a firm timeline.

“Our plan is to hire one or more child psychologists to help us assess the mental health impacts of what children and young people do online,” FTC spokesperson Douglas Farrar told CNBC in a statement. “We are currently exploring the next steps including how many to hire and when.”

The FTC’s plan is indicative of a broader push across the U.S. government, focusing on online protections for kids and teens. Federal and state lawmakers have proposed new legislation they believe will make the internet safer by mandating stronger age authentication or placing more responsibility on tech companies to design safe products for young users. The U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory in May that young people’s social media use poses significant mental health risks.

Bedoya, who founded the Center on Privacy and Technology at the Georgetown University Law Center, said the plan is reflective of the FTC’s approach as “an expert agency through and through.” It follows the agency’s earlier decisions to add economists to its ranks of lawyers on staff and, later, technologists.

Bedoya told The Record that it’s “absolutely part of that tradition of systematically expanding our expertise.”

Bedoya envisions an in-house child psychologist to be a helpful resource for commissioners like himself.

“If I have an economic question, I’ve got 80 Ph.D. economists I can ask,” he told The Record. “If someone is making an allegation about mental health harms, I have no full-time staff who are experts in the psychology of it.”

While Bedoya said the FTC can already get advice from ad hoc consultants, hiring a child psychologist on staff “can send a strong signal to other law enforcement agencies in the U.S. by saying we need to have these folks in-house such that it’s a standing capacity.”

Those experts could bring important insights that can link a cause to alleged harm and inform the appropriate damages the agency seeks, Bedoya said. He added that child psychologists could help the FTC evaluate allegations of how social media may affect mental health, as well as assess the effect of dark patterns or other deceptive features.

Bedoya said the initial hires would likely be “psychological scientists” or “social psychologists,” who conduct research rather than evaluate kids in a clinical setting. While he said he can’t “presuppose anything,” they’d likely work on investigations, strategy, and possibly rulemaking.

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