One of the pitfalls of digitization and social media platforms has been the algorithms that help companies target users with customized content. We have long known that social media can be extremely harmful, especially for children. While even adults fall prey to these feeds, the data is particularly worrisome for kids, many of whom become addicted to algorithm-generated feeds on their social media accounts.

Very little has been done at the federal level in the US to solve these problems but many US states are coming up with laws to try to help. Joining the ranks is New York, whose state legislature has passed the Stop Addictive Feeds Exploitation (SAFE) for Kids Act. The bill is soon expected to be signed into law by Governor Kathy Hochul, who celebrated the bill’s passage by thanking New York State Attorney General Letitia James and partners in the Legislature in her tweet.

According to the New York State Senate, “The purpose of this bill is to protect the mental health of children from addictive feeds used by social media platforms, and from disrupted sleep due to night-time use of social media.”

The bill bars platforms from suggesting posts to those under the age of 18, and they would only instead see posts from the accounts in their network. However, the bill has a provision that allows companies to show kids suggested posts if they have “verifiable parental consent.” It also prohibits social media companies from sending notifications to children between 12:00 AM and 6:00 AM to “mitigate the harms caused by late night access and the related loss of sleep.”

New York Senate Passes Bill to Prohibit Addictive Feed for Children

If any company is found violating the provisions they would have 30 days to correct the issue failing which they face penalties of up to $5,000 per user. This may seem high on the surface but the fees must be massive in order to meaningfully affect large social media companies enough to make them change.

Lawmakers see the bill as a step forward in trying to curb the excessive use of social media. AG James Letitia, who pushed for the bill, said, “Our children are enduring a mental health crisis, and social media is fueling the fire and profiting from the epidemic.”

However, as expected, social media platforms see it as an overreach by lawmakers. NetChoice, a tech industry trade group that counts Meta Platforms, YouTube, Snap, and X (formerly Twitter) as its members, called the legislation “an assault on free speech and the open internet by the state of New York.”

NetChoice might legally challenge the New York law. Carl Szabo, vice president and general counsel of NetChoice, said, “NetChoice has defeated similar unconstitutional bills in three other states, where the judges in each of those cases highlighted the serious First Amendment and privacy concerns with this type of legislation. Parents — not politicians — should be making the rules for their families.”

Social Media Regulations for Kids Looks the Need of the Hour

While social media has helped make the world a connected place, it has its own downside, especially for children. As the New York bill says, addictive feeds mean more time spent on social media, which leads to “significantly higher rates of youth depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and self-harm.”

It adds, “Children are particularly susceptible to addictive feeds, which provide a non-stop drip of dopamine with each new piece of media, as they are less capable of exercising the impulse control necessary to mitigate these negative effects, which can stunt development and cause long-term harm.”

The bill adds that it would be folly to expect social media companies to self-regulate themselves as these addictive feeds are much more profitable for them.

Recent History of Social Media Regulation

Social media regulation is a burning issue not only in the US but in all major developed economies. Meta, for instance, was forced to offer an ad-free paid version of Facebook and Instagram in the EU amid concerns over user privacy.

Then there is the issue of social media platforms allegedly curbing some content that they find objectionable or non-compliant with their policies. Computer & Communications Industry Association and NetChoice challenged such laws in Texas and Florida, and even the US Supreme Court was torn over the issue. At the center of the argument is the First Amendment which protects freedom of free speech.

Most recently, NetChoice has challenged a new Mississippi law that requires those using websites and other services online to verify their age.

US States Are Waking Up to the Menace of Social Media

US states are also waking up to the dangerous effects of social media on kids. For instance, Connecticut recently updated its laws to require online platforms to conduct children’s safety assessments and limit who can contact children using messaging tools.

Ohio enacted the Parental Notification by Social Media Operators Act which said that children would require parental consent to start an account. However, a federal judge blocked the law in a victory for social media companies. A similar law by Arkansas was also blocked by a federal judge.

In California, State Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) introduced SB 976 which would prohibit social media websites from sending children under the age of 18 “addictive” material unless they have the consent of a parent or guardian.

Among others, the bill makes chronological feed the default setting so that kids see posts from people they follow in the order they are uploaded as opposed to the current algorithm-generated feed. The bill was passed by the state Senate in May.

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Lobbying Groups Have Been Opposing Regulations

All said, while lawmakers have started to act against the harmful impact of social media on kids, such laws might face judicial scrutiny over the First Amendment. Naturally, lobbying groups, often funded by social media companies, are fighting many of these bills across the country. Social media platforms are tremendously popular among teens, and a Pew Research study in 2023 shows that 71% of US teens use YouTube at least once daily, while the figure was 58% and 51%, respectively, for TikTok and Snapchat.

While social media companies have taken piecemeal measures to protect children below the age of 18 on their platforms, they have been steadily opposing restrictions on their addictive algorithm. This is because they would likely negatively impact the engagement and, by extension, its bottom line.