A bipartisan California bill would allow parents to hold large social media companies liable for knowingly allowing a platform to be addictive to children and ultimately causing harm.
The bill from Assemblymembers Jordan Cunningham, R-San Luis Obispo, and Buffy Wicks, D-Oakland, creates a duty on large social media companies, such as TikTok or Meta, to ensure their platforms are not addictive for minors.
Parents, guardians and the state attorney general would be able to bring legal action against a company that allegedly violated this duty that led to a child’s harm.
“We’ve had kids over the last two years online and using social media apps at unprecedented levels, and we’re seeing unprecedented hospital admittance, unprecedented depression, eating disorders, suicidal ideations. There’s a real crisis among our youth,” Assemblymember Cunningham, whose district includes northern Santa Barbara County, told the News-Press.
According to Assemblymember Cunningham, the bill limits liability to situations where there is demonstrable harm. It would allow parents and the attorney general to hold companies liable for their practices — such as designing algorithms that cause addiction — not the content posted by others on the sites.
And it would also only apply to companies earning more than $100 million in annual revenue, according to a fact sheet about the legislation.
“I’m not trying to pass some bill that puts some small business or start-up out of business,” Assemblymember Cunningham said. “We’re trying to narrowly target this at the companies that were engaged in full knowledge with the harm it was causing people.”
“These companies have conducted a massive social experiment on children,” he said.
Assemblymember Cunningham specifically pointed to testimony whistleblower Frances Haugen, a former data scientist for Facebook, gave to Congress in October 2021 as a catalyst for the legislation.
Ms. Haugen said Facebook “chooses to mislead and misdirect” when asked about the potential harm it has on children. She said the company forwent placing safeguards on its platforms.
And she provided Facebook studies that found teenage girls said their eating disorders worsened after using Instagram while others said Instagram made them feel even worse about their bodies.
One study provided by Ms. Haugen found nearly 14% of teenage girls in Britain began having more frequent suicidal thoughts after beginning to use Instagram.
When reached for comment by the News-Press, a spokesperson for Meta, the parent organization of Instagram, Facebook and other subsidiaries, pointed to a host of other studies and information regarding what the company has implemented to protect youth.
One study the spokesperson pointed to said most teens who use Instagram said the platform made them feel better.
A spokesperson for TikTok also pointed to information about how the company encourages users to manage screen time and other guides for parents and youth about how to report inappropriate behavior and manage privacy settings.
Regulating and investigating social media platforms has garnered bipartisan support.
“As the mother of two daughters, I grapple with how harmful the social media landscape can be to our children’s health and well-being — especially that of young girls,” Assemblymember Wicks said in a statement about the bill she has co-authored. “For every parent like me who is anxiously watching their children grow older in the digital world, there are millions of others whose teens (and often, even younger kids) are already experiencing the mental health impacts of a system that has a moral responsibility to protect them.”
“Our No. 1 job as legislators is to protect the health and safety of Californians — especially our kids and teens — and I’m proud to jointly author this bill that takes that responsibility as seriously as it deserves,” she said.
Earlier this month, California Attorney General Rob Bonta joined other state attorneys general in launching a probe into TikTok, specifically investigating whether the video-focused social media platform is knowingly inflicting harm on children.
The bipartisan coalition of investigators said they will investigate whether TikTok, owned by Chinese company ByteDance Ltd., violated state consumer protection laws and if the company knew about potential dangers posed to young children while promoting its platform.
“Our children are growing up in the age of social media — and many feel like they need to measure up to the filtered versions of reality that they see on their screens,” Attorney General Bonta said in a statement. “We know this takes a devastating toll on children’s mental health and well-being. But we don’t know what social media companies knew about these harms and when.”
Wall Street Journal investigations have found TikTok’s algorithm could promote harmful eating disorders and diet content to youths as well as content related to drug use, sexual abuse or depression.
The group of eight attorneys general also launched a probe into Instagram in November.
President Joe Biden even mentioned social media and mental health during his State of the Union address this year. The president said he wanted to improve mental health among the nation’s children — something he said was a problem even before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mr. Biden pointed to “bullying, violence, trauma and the harms of social media” as being detrimental to young people in the U.S.
“It’s time to strengthen privacy protections, ban targeted advertising to children (and) demand tech companies stop collecting personal data on our children,” President Biden said.
“We know that there are many ways that social media platforms can harm kids. And tech companies know it too. Addictive design features, algorithmic amplification of harmful content and overly commercial content are just some of the harms social media platforms inflict on kids and teens,” said Jim Steyer, CEO and founder of Common Sense Media. “Big tech companies won’t change their practices on their own, but California can take an important step to force them to do the right thing for our kids, teens and families.”
Assemblymember Cunningham said he hoped this bill would also deter companies, including future ones, from designing products that intentionally addict children.
The bill is expected to be heard in the Assembly Judiciary Committee this spring.