Calif. Bill Could Hook Tech Cos. For Social Media Addiction

A bipartisan pair of California lawmakers introduced a bill that would hold Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and other technology giants liable for social media addiction that they say harms children.

Assemblymembers Jordan Cunningham, R-San Luis Obispo, and Buffy Wicks, D-Oakland, introduced A.B. 2408, or the Social Media Platform Duty to Children Act, with the aim of holding tech companies responsible for making sure their social media platforms don’t use advertising, push notifications or other features that could addict underage users and harm their mental health.

Under the bill, parents and guardians of children who have been harmed as a result of social media addiction would be able to sue the companies for damages, civil penalties and injunctive relief, among other things.

Cunningham said that there is a large body of evidence showing that many children and teenagers are getting addicted to social media, and that a good percentage of those kids are suffering from severe mental health issues such as disordered eating and thoughts of suicide.

The prosecutor-turned-lawmaker said former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen’s testimony in October at a U.S. Senate hearing confirmed that the social media giant intentionally designs its products to hook users’ attention. Haugen also claimed that Facebook hid internal research about the negative impacts of its social media products, including Instagram, on children and adults.

Cunningham likened A.B. 2408 to other product liability laws that are designed to protect children, including landmark rules against marketing tobacco products to kids.

And the bill would not intrude upon Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act, which protects social media companies from liability for the content that others post on their platforms, because the bill has nothing to do with content, Cunningham said.

The lawmaker said the bill doesn’t specify how social media companies should make sure kids don’t become addicted — it just creates an incentive to make sure they do so. He said the companies don’t currently have that incentive because they make billions of dollars by hooking people to use their products and selling their data to marketers.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas earlier this month said Congress should revisit the scope of immunity afforded to online platforms under Section 230. Cunningham said he is happy to let Congress figure out the scope of Section 230. But he said A.B. 2408 would force those companies to pay their share of the cost to treat children and teenagers struggling with mental health issues.

The Children’s Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego School of Law, which co-sponsored A.B. 2408, said the state legislation would discourage social media companies from manipulating their platforms to be addictive and harmful to children.

The institute said the bill is the first of its kind and only applies to social media platforms that are controlled by companies earning more than $100 million in annual revenue, and it excludes other types of digital platforms, like email providers, search engines and streaming services.

Under the bill, parents will be able to seek actual damages from the companies, including in class actions where the damages cannot be less than $1,000 per class member. They will also be able to seek a civil penalty of up to $25,000 per underage user per year in which the violation occurred.


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