California lawmakers have cleared a first-of-its-kind bill that opens up major social media companies to civil liabilities for addicting children to their platforms.
Such companies, like Facebook's parent company Meta, have been lobbying to stop this bill which is enforced under the state law governing unfair practices.
Under the bill, which was cleared in the California State Senate on 28 June, the state attorney general, district attorneys, and city attorneys of the state's four largest cities can sue companies like Meta, TikTok, and Snapchat if they believe that the companies have knowingly implemented features designed to make minors addicted to their platforms.
The bill was introduced in its initial form in early May. The original bill allowed parents to sue social media companies over their children's addiction. The Wall Street Journal reported that it was lobbying by companies like Meta and Snapchat that led to the bill's amendment.
The amended bill, which now only permits government attorneys to prosecute and has a number of clauses that grant immunity to companies, was passed unanimously by the senate judiciary committee. The senate also removed a clause that would have allowed retroactive lawsuits.
Under the new bill, entitled the "Social Media Platform Duty to Children Act", social media companies could face civil penalties of up to $25000 for basic violations or up to $250000 if they are found to have knowingly implemented features that would cause children under the age of 18 to get addicted.
The bill still needs to be approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee and then the full Senate before it can be signed by the Governor to be enacted into law. It has seen widespread support from youth activists, consumer rights groups, teachers' unions, and parents all over the state.
This bill was co-authored by Republican assembly member Jordan Cunningham and Democratic assembly member Buffy Wicks. California's Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom has not taken a public stance with regard to the bill yet. While it has seen support from several groups, many are opposed to it. Representatives of tech companies are particularly concerned about the bill's potential implications.
Dylan Hoffman, an executive at Technet, testified before the senate that the bill would be a violation of free speech. He further added that it would only force social media companies to either cease operating in California or stop targeting younger audiences altogether.
Assemblyman Cunningham stated that the bill was essential since social media companies do whatever they can to make children spend more time on their platforms, even at the cost of their mental and physical health.
In a statement to the Associated Press, Cunningham said “The era of unfettered social experimentation on children is over, and we will protect kids.”
There has been a growing discussion around the detrimental effects that social media has on the mental health of adolescents. Instances of mental illnesses and poor self-image that are attributed to social media have increased dramatically since the pandemic forced everyone to become more digitally connected. Children and teenagers have been shown to be particularly susceptible to the effects of algorithmic content curation.
Larissa May, an activist and social worker who testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of the bill, told Forbes about how younger audiences can fall victim to the negative effects of social media.
She said "Young minds are especially malleable and vulnerable to the implications of weaponized algorithms as their prefrontal cortex (the home of executive function, control and decision making) is not fully developed, At a young age, their neurochemistry is being disrupted by technology, and quite frankly, it’s moving faster than the human mind. It doesn't have to be this way."