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Editorial: Social media companies refuse to safeguard kids. It's up to lawmakers now

Los Angeles Times Editorial Board, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Op Eds

From state capitols to Washington, D.C., lawmakers are scrambling to come up with regulations that can protect kids from the potential harms of social media, since the platforms have been unwilling to adopt reasonable safeguards themselves.

In just the last few months, Florida passed a law banning children under 14 from having a social media account, Iowa legislators backed a bill that would require children under 18 to get parental permission to set up and use a social media account, and Colorado legislators passed a bill that would require platforms to display pop-up warnings on kids’ accounts after an hour of use.

A dozen other states, including California, are considering or have passed laws that would force companies to design their platforms to be safer for kids. Changes could include stricter privacy settings, limiting data collection and targeted ads, and removing features that encourage kids to stay online longer, such as infinite scroll and autoplay, which automatically launches a new video when one ends. Congress is also working on bipartisan legislation with similar measures to require social media companies to enact safeguards to protect children.

This legislation is driven by a growing understanding that social media apps can be addictive and are dangerous to children’s mental health. The American Psychological Association urged again this month that policymakers require that tech companies reduce the risks embedded in the platforms.

Yet the drive for regulation is facing stiff pushback from the tech industry, which has lobbied against the bills and filed lawsuits to block new legislation from taking effect, arguing the laws are unconstitutional. California’s first-in-the-nation law to require that social media platforms be designed to protect children was blocked last fall by a federal judge who said the law likely violates the 1st Amendment rights of the tech companies that it seeks to regulate.

With California’s first attempt held up in court, lawmakers are trying again this year.

 

Senate Bill 976 by Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) would require that social media platforms essentially turn off their algorithms for users under 18 and instead serve them content through a chronological feed from people they follow and information that they’ve searched for. The algorithms are designed to feed users a steady stream of content they didn’t necessarily ask for that keeps them on the app, which is why the algorithms have been called addictive. That content may be more dangerous or extreme than what the user initially searched for or not age-appropriate.

The bill is sponsored by Attorney General Rob Bonta, who sued Meta last year alleging the company used harmful and “psychologically manipulative product features,” such as “likes,” infinite scroll and constant alerts, to hook young people on Instagram and Facebook and keep them engaged for as much time as possible in order to boost profits.

SB 976 attempts to curtail some of those features. It would bar platforms from sending notifications to children between 12 a.m. and 6 a.m., and require that social media platforms give parents the ability to change the settings on their kids’ accounts, such as turning off notifications and setting time limits on usage. Parents could allow kids to opt in to the algorithmic feed or turn off restrictions.

These are reasonable safeguards and much less restrictive than proposals in other states, yet tech industry groups have opposed the bill. They argue that a chronological feed is no safer for children than an algorithmic feed; bad actors could flood a chronological feed with low quality or harmful content that bury posts from family or friends. They also said the bill will run up against the same 1st Amendment challenges as other laws because, along with limiting a minor’s ability to access and share information, it would impede adults’ access to lawful content because adults would have to prove their age to use the less restricted algorithmic feed and settings.

It’s likely that any law attempting to put guardrails on social media platforms will face legal challenges. This is complex legal and regulatory terrain, but that’s exactly why California lawmakers should keep pushing ahead with SB 976 and similar efforts. The tech industry has been unwilling to voluntarily change its practices to protect children. Lawmakers have to do it for them.


©2024 Los Angeles Times. Visit at latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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