A California Bill Wants To Punish Social Media Companies for 'Addicting' Children
The bill makes little note of parents' ability to control their own children's social media access.
A bill working its way through the California Senate would prohibit large social media platforms from using "a design, feature, or affordance that the platform knew, or which by the exercise of reasonable care should have known, causes child users to become addicted to the platform." The Social Media Platform Duty to Children Act has cleared the California Assembly, been amended in the Senate, and referred to the Appropriations Committee.
While the bill seems to address many of the concerns raised about teenagers and social media use, the bill erases the role of parents in determining what their kids can see and do online.
The bill also establishes unclear rules and definitions seemingly meant to turn social media platforms into cash cows for prosecutors. If found to be violating the law, social media companies can face a civil penalty of up to $250,000 for each violation of a ban on "addicting" features. Companies can be prosecuted directly by the "Attorney General or by a district attorney, county counsel, or city attorney."
It is now conventional wisdom that spending too much time on social media can be bad for kids. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argued in a 2021 Atlantic article that social media use is to blame for the increase in depression among adolescent girls. Haidt wrote that "From 2010 to 2014, rates of hospital admission for self-harm did not increase at all for women in their early 20s, or for boys or young men, but they doubled for girls ages 10 to 14."
However, whether social media is a symptom or a root cause of mood disorders for some teenagers is not settled science, writes Grayce Burns, a technology policy analyst with the Reason Foundation (the nonprofit that publishes this website). In June, she observed that conflicting studies about whether social media addiction is an actual addiction suggest that our collective anxiety about social media echoes past social panics about new technology.
"When the printing press made reading accessible to the public, some individuals, the most prominent being famous British writer Vicesimus Knox, began to identify and condemn 'reading mania' in the late 1700s," Burns wrote. "Like social media addiction today, 'telephone addiction' also had a formal definition and criteria that included being unable to be away from a phone for more than three hours without suffering 'anxiety tremors.'"
California's law has problems that extend from its shaky premise. It prohibits companies from including so-called addicting features but fails to list specific features and to state whether they must be addicting in isolation or in combination with other features or specific kinds of content. Rather than do the hard (if not impossible) work of writing specific regulations for what legislators claim is a real and specific problem, they want to hold social media platforms liable for any feature these companies "knew, or which by the exercise of reasonable care should have known" would cause child addiction.
What would happen if prosecutors decide that mere use of a social media platform leads to addiction in some percentage of children? Or if the content, and not app features, are the addicting draw? The way the bill is written currently, the answers to these questions are unclear.
"It doesn't make sense to identify the feature when it's the content underlying it that may cause the problem," Dylan Hoffman, a TechNet executive, told the Associated Press. He added that there "is a lot of innovation in this space to make sure that parents and kids are able to better control their social media usage."
With this bill, California is treating a parenting problem with a government regulation solution.