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Column: California considering restrictions on social media platforms


California is poised to take a bold stance by holding Facebook (Meta), Instagram, TikTok, Snap and other major social media platforms accountable for their actions if a groundbreaking bill targeting online addiction crosses its final obstacles.

The bill, AB 2408, was approved by the Assembly in May and an amended version was passed unanimously by the Senate Judiciary Committee on June 28.

It will authorize the state attorney general, district attorneys across California and prosecutors in the four largest cities – Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose and San Francisco – to sue any large social media company that knowingly implements features designed to make minors addicted to using the platform.

Before landing on the governor’s desk, the bill still has to pass the Senate Appropriations Committee and the full Senate. But the pending legislation has generated grassroots and parental support and buzz in national media, including the Wall Street Journal, and among tech publications and industry analysts.

The bill was co-sponsored by the Children’s Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego Law School and Common Sense Media. It’s an effort to hold major social media platforms accountable for deliberately deploying algorithms and features known to trigger addiction among younger, more sensitive audiences.

“It is now widely accepted that there is a problem that needs to be addressed urgently,” says Ed Howard, senior counsel for the Children’s Advocacy Institute here. “Multi-billion dollar corporations make more money by controlling the souls and minds of our nation’s children. No one is saying that social media should be able to get our kids hooked. »

The Assembly bill, co-authored by Republican Jordan Cunningham and Democrat Buffy Wicks, lays out numerous research indications of the excessive and compulsive use of social media that harms minors:

  • Five to six percent of 14-year-olds surveyed admitted to problematic drinking.
  • Girls who report excessive use of social media are two to three times more likely to report being depressed than girls who use it less frequently.
  • Girls are much more susceptible to social media addiction than boys.
  • Because their brains are still developing, addiction in adolescents impairs the development of judgment, attention, and memory.
  • Higher daily rates of social media viewing are linked to reduced brain tissue that controls memory, emotions, speech, decision-making and self-control, and leads to greater impulsivity.
  • Several studies document links between time spent on social media and rising rates of suicide and depression in teens.

The legislation cites confidential internal research revealed by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen acknowledging that Facebook (now called Meta) was aware that children using its Instagram platform were subject to serious mental health harm.

Meta’s internal research also found that 13% of UK users and 6% of US users attributed their desire to kill themselves to using Instagram. (Meta owns Instagram.)

Negative body image issues, eating disorders, social pressure, depression, anxiety, mental illness, emotional distress, and suicide have all been linked to heavy social media use.

San Diego State University psychology professor Jean Twenge earlier published a study showing that teenagers whose eyes are glued to their smartphones are significantly less happy. She also found that significant increases in mental health crises among teens in recent years matched the growing popularity of Instagram.

The original version of the bill allowed parents to sue social media companies over their children’s behavioral addiction and resulting mental health issues.

The big media companies lobbied against it, and in the Senate amendments, the power to prosecute was shifted from private lawyers to government lawyers.

The bill also only applies to media giants with more than $100 million in gross annual revenue. Violators have the option to correct the practice to avoid a penalty of $25,000 per violation and up to $250,000 for a violation deemed willful and willful.

Representatives of tech companies oppose the bill. A commercial industry spokesperson, Dylan Hoffman, TechNet’s executive director for California and the Southwest, protested during the Senate hearing that the bill would infringe on free speech and would a chilling effect on the industry.

“The recent amendments do not address our fundamental opposition or concern with AB 2408,” Hoffman told me in an interview Thursday. He said the bill would punish a company simply for having a platform children can access, when it would do little to improve security.

“This imposes a new responsibility that would most likely lead to companies severely restricting access to children under 18,” he warned.

The California Chamber of Commerce also opposes the bill.

Other states are known to be watching California for possible similar measures.

The gist of the bill is that it invokes unfair competition law – using the theory that a media platform that employs neuroscientists and artificial intelligence research to create addictive behavior shouldn’t be able to gain a business advantage over a law-abiding company.

Howard of the Children’s Advocacy Institute points out that it does not apply to entities such as Netflix, Disney+, Marvel Studios or third-party content providers. E-mail, Internet search and Internet streaming services as well as video games are also exempt.

Instead, it targets companies that create tools and inventions, such as bottomless scrolling, autoplay, and intermittent rewards (“like” and voting buttons, for example) specifically to keep kids online to generate more advertising dollars.

Instagram and other platforms have developed a revenue model that relies not on paid subscriptions, but on user engagement that fuels ad revenue.

“They rattle kids and make them addicted to the point where they can’t leave the platform when they realize it’s negatively affecting them,” says Jessica Heldman, associate professor at USD School of Law.

The legislation took shape last fall after the Facebook whistleblower testified in Congress, as well as the steady deterioration of children’s mental health over the past decade.

“Our goal was to ensure that the legislation focuses on companies that have the revenue to employ engineers and psychologists to find ways to make their platform more appealing and ultimately more addictive to children,” explains Heldman. “We want them to look into this and fix this. It is a motivation to work with us. That’s the point.

She hopes for the support of San Diego State Senator Toni Atkins, acting Senate President, and the Governor.

“We appreciate all the hard work that has gone into this bill, and we look forward to considering it further,” Atkins said Friday through press secretary Cameron Sutherland, who noted that the Senate was on vacation this month.

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