Last year, the American Library Association received objections to over 2,500 different library books across the country, compared to just over 500 in 2019. These figures mark a growing censorship movement, led by a small number of extreme right-wing groups, to prevent kids and young adults from learning about topics they disapprove of, including the experiences of racism and LGBTQ people.
And while book bans are reason enough for worry, these same extreme groups aren’t stopping at school libraries. Right-wing groups promoting new digital teen censorship legislation have already successfully lobbied to limit minors’ access to the Internet in Arkansas, Texas, Utah, and Louisiana. Now, Georgia lawmakers are looking to follow suit. Georgians shouldn’t let them.
Over the last several years, a small but organized number of extremist groups have mobilized to censor content, including books, that conflict with their ideology.
Take the anti-LGBTQ group American Principles Project (APP). Over the last several years, APP has spent millions of dollars on political ads calling for the ban of LGBTQ books in school libraries, mislabeling some books as “grooming” content. Across the country, the organization has weighed in on local school board races for anti-LGBTQ candidates, spending half a million dollars on Georgia elections in 2022.
But the latest frontier for APP isn’t the school library — it’s the Internet. This year, the organization helped lead an effort in Arkansas to pass rules that require teens to seek their parents’ permission to create a social media account. For many LGBTQ youth whose parents don’t recognize their identity, that can mean a loss of access to online information and supportive communities.
In an interview with Fox News this summer, the president of APP said they’d like to bring teen Internet restrictions to Georgia next. Two weeks later, a pair of Georgia state senators announced their intent to introduce digital teen censorship legislation in 2024, again requiring teens to seek parental permission to create an online account.
At first glance, these laws might seem like a good thing; parents should absolutely be involved in managing their kids’ safety online. But many of these bills, including the Louisiana bill that Georgia lawmakers are modeling theirs after, are designed in a way that harms marginalized teens by cutting off their access to online resources.
In a recent social media advisory, the Surgeon General highlighted how “the buffering effects against stress that online social support from peers may provide can be especially important for youth who are often marginalized, including racial, ethnic, and sexual and gender minorities.” LGBTQ children are particularly reliant on online networks as a result. Studies also show that the Internet can offer the support LGBTQ teenagers don’t receive offline, which is why many LGBTQ youth turn to online resources to connect with peers.
Unfortunately, for far-right organizations and lawmakers, the negative impact of digital teen censorship legislation on LGBTQ teens can be seen as a feature, not a bug. This week, the Chamber of Progress released a new report examining the close ties between legislators and groups that pushed for anti-LGBTQ book bans and those leading the charge for digital censorship.
On top of harming LGBTQ teens, digital censorship laws endanger minors who experience abuse and neglect at home. Legislation that requires parental consent for minors to access online resources cuts off children with abusive parents from lifesaving resources as their abuser gains control over their online activity.
Many digital teen censorship bills also go beyond parental access to kids’ accounts. Take Texas’s recent SCOPE Act, for example. This legislation created a ban list of content that social media platforms cannot allow minors to access, including “grooming” content. Sadly, “grooming” content is the same dog-whistle phrase used by APP and other far-right activists across the country to ban LGBTQ books. Now, Texas politicians — not parents and their kids — can choose to block teens from seeing queer content on the Internet.
There’s no question that parents should be involved in ensuring their kids’ safety online. But a digital version of a book ban for teens does more harm than it does good, especially when it’s designed to target LGBTQ youth. As Georgia lawmakers begin to craft digital teen censorship legislation for the Peach State, voters should be aware of how such a bill can be weaponized against the minors it claims to protect.