MONTGOMERY — A bill requiring manufacturers to automatically activate the adult content filter on phones and tablets sold in Alabama cleared Senate committee on Wednesday.

House Bill 298 (HB298), the Protection of Minors from Unfiltered Devices Act, is sponsored by State Rep. Chris Sells (R-Greenville). The bill would require manufacturers to enable the existing filters on smartphones and other devices blocking adult content.

The bill would apply to smartphones, tablets and smartwatches — anything activated through a mobile carrier. The settings already exist on current phones and tablets; the bill would only require phones to have the filter turned on. After setting up a password to unlock the system, the setting can be turned off or left on, depending on the user's preference.

The bill passed the House of Representatives last week, despite opponents claiming it would create an additional burden on manufacturers and service providers.

According to Melea Stephens, a Birmingham-based marriage and family therapist and board member with the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, Sells contacted her office for reference on the bill.

"This was our second round to team up with Representative Sells," Stephens said. "We tried last session, so this is our second time through."

"Interestingly, in 2020, Alabama became the 16th state to declare pornography a public health crisis," she added. "We passed a formal resolution because we were acknowledging the overwhelming body of research. The neuroscience and social research that points to the damaging effects of pornography."

Stephens continued, "In my private practice, I've seen the devastating effects to children all the way up to adults. But the most alarming has been watching young children who are exposed to pornography from the age of four to six, sometimes seven, eight, or nine, but even as young as four, who after one or two exposures get hooked and then because they are traumatized by it, they begin acting out on siblings and playmates, and they create this cycle of child-on-child harmful sexual behavior."

According to Stephens, research shows that nearly half of all first-time exposures to pornography are accidental, a problem she believes could be prevented with HB 298.

"It's just activating preexisting adult content filters. It's just a simple fix that could provide immediate barriers of protection for kids," Stephens continued. "The bill would not require any difference in hardware from manufacturers, it would only require a software update for phones sold in the state."

The bill passed unamended from the Senate Fiscal Responsibility and Economic Development Committee with a 9-1 vote. With limited time left in the legislative session, the final passage of a bill becomes less likely as the days wind down.

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