Parents who may be concerned that their children are becoming addicted to social media could soon be able to take legal action against the platforms, at least in California. A bipartisan bill, introduced by California State Assemblymember Jordan Cunningham (R-San Luis Obispo) and Assemblymember Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland), would allow parents to sue social media companies on behalf of their children. It passed the Assembly Judiciary Committee unanimously earlier this week.
If passed into law, Assembly Bill 2408 would allow parents and the state Attorney General to sue social media companies on behalf of children who are harmed as a result of a social media addiction. The bill, dubbed the “Social Media Platform Duty to Children Act,” outlines specific safe harbors that would exempt social media companies from liability if the company identifies and removes addictive features of their platform within a specified amount of time.
The bill will next head directly to the Assembly Floor, where it will be debated later this month.
“Social media companies’ own research shows how addictive their platforms are for kids – and there’s nothing parents can do to stop it,” said Cunningham. “If you’re going to create a product for children, you need to design it in a way that doesn’t result in some of those kids becoming addicted and having to seek psychiatric care. Our bill would require social media companies to change their practices, or be held liable for the damages their addictive features cause.
The bill would only apply to companies earning at least $100 million in revenue annually. Companies found in violation could face civil penalties of $25,000 per violation, or up to $250,000 per violation if it is done knowingly and willfully.
“Social media is a lifeline for the next generation,” explained Larissa May, founder of #HalfTheStory, a nonprofit organization that aims to improve the next generation’s relationship with social media.
She recently testified before the Assembly Judiciary Committee at the State Capitol in support of the bill.
“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,” May said via an email exchange. “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.”
May warned that digital abstinence doesn’t work for teens, and in fact, sometimes it can make matters worse. She said there are major misunderstandings about tech and wellbeing, which support the need for AB2408.
“Social Media is a coping mechanism,” May continued. “Teens are spending time on social media to self soothe and escape the challenges they face in their daily lives. The teens spending more time on the platform are more likely to be suffering emotionally and more susceptible to the traps of the infinite games we call social media.”
Some experts have suggested simply turning off a device won’t solve the problem, and have also noted that all screen time shouldn’t be seen as bad.
“Measuring social media time through quantity is like measuring calories purely by number. In the same way zero calorie candy is more toxic than an apple with more calories, the same applies to social media,” May suggested. “While many youth do have positive relationships with technology, our platforms must be held accountable to build safer ecosystems for our teens to thrive, especially the vulnerable ones.
“We must recognize that this policy will not solve all the problems of our youth, but it will be a step forward for safe infrastructure design,” May added. “We wouldn’t take our children over an unstable bridge, and we shouldn’t send them to platforms where algorithms are predatory. Until our society treats mental health as physical health, we will continue to face this crisis. If teens are held accountable for the time they spend online, tech companies should be too.”
One could question whether the social media platforms are entirely at fault for the overuse by younger Americans.
“Social media companies are certainly to blame for a lot of things, but parents also have a duty to their children,” suggested technology industry analyst Roger Entner of Recon Analytics. “There are plenty of apps and permissioning available that lets parents restrict what their children can do and not do on their mobile devices and computers.”